All-flash array roundup 2016: The big six

Computer Weekly surveys an all-flash array market in which the big six in storage have largely settled on strategy, but key new technologies – such as TLC flash and 3D NAND – are emerging

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In all-flash storage 2015 was year of consolidation, incremental improvement and price reduction from the big six storage suppliers.

In a short space of time, the big six storage providers have built out their flash product offerings into mature and scalable platforms. The past few months has seen a focus on price, with many suppliers – including the startups – aiming for the magical $1/GB price point.

The all-flash market has become super-competitive, with only Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) seeing revenue growth over the past 12 months (at least according to IDC), and an obvious race to the bottom on price ensuing as 3D and TLC NAND starts to be adopted.

All the incumbent suppliers (HDS, EMC, HPE, NetApp, IBM and Dell) started the year with existing platforms that underwent upgrades to features, capacity and performance. The big six – except for NetApp – had settled on a flash product strategy, with a mix of acquisition or in-house development.

The question we have to ask is where the market will choose to compete next. Indications are that we’ll see a focus on automation and systems, and matching of all-flash platforms to specific workloads such as containers, virtualisation and databases.

Hitachi Data Systems

Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) announced its VSP F-Series in November 2015. Up to that point, VSP G-series arrays supported all-flash configurations, but they weren’t eligible for performance measurement by analyst firms that insist all-flash arrays must be incapable of supporting traditional spinning media.

HDS felt its leadership in the market, which is based on proprietary flash drive technology, wasn’t being accurately reported. The F-Series – available in models F400, F600 and F800 – seeks to redress the balance with system capacities up to 448TB (after data reduction).

In November 2015, HDS also released its second generation of Flash Module Devices (FMDs). These are a bespoke technology that integrates NAND flash and HDS-developed hardware into a custom flash module with capacities up to 6.4TB. The module also introduces inline data compression that it claims has no effect on performance.

In January 2016, HDS added another key piece to its all-flash offerings, with the HFS A Series all-flash arrays. These are data deduplication-enabled arrays that allow HDS to target high-performance, all-flash workloads such as VDI.

The A series packs up to 60 standard SSDs into one 3.5 inch 2U chassis and uses off-the-shelf 1.6TB multi-level cell (MLC) SSDs, rather than the 6TB-plus custom-built FMDs that HDS offers with its other all-flash options.

A Series models available are the A220, with 10 drives and a raw capacity of 16 TB (effective capacity 64TB with data reduction); the A250 with 30 and capacity of 48 TB (192TB effective); and the A270 with 60 SSDs for a raw capacity of 96TB effective capacity of 384TB.


At EMC World in May 2015, EMC announced the release of XtremIO 4.0 and the parallel availability of XIOS 4.0, the operating system that drives the XtremIO platform. The hardware allows systems to scale up to eight X-Brick nodes in two-brick increments, each at a capacity of 40TB using 1.6GB SSDs.

Maximum XtremIO system capacity is now 320TB (269TB usable) or 1,612TB effective capacity with data reduction. Availability features in XtremIO were improved, with the ability to non-disruptively add nodes to an existing cluster. The platform was also upgraded with native RecoverPoint integration to provide data replication between appliances in geographically dispersed locations.

Eighteen months down the line, there is still no release date in sight for EMC’s other all-flash platform, DSSD. EMC acquired the company in 2014, making a big announcement at EMC World that year.

DSSD is slated to be a direct-connect all-flash appliance that will deliver significantly higher levels of performance and lower latency compared with even that seen with XtremIO. The product will be targeted at niche applications that demand ultra-high levels of throughput, but which still need the benefits of externally connected storage.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise

HPE upgraded and replaced its 7000 and 10000 platforms with the 8000 and 20000 series. The 8450 all-flash system replaces the previous 7450 model and uses the latest Generation 5 custom ASIC that 3PAR systems have become well known for.

At the top end of the range, the HPE 3PAR 20850 scales up to 4PB of raw capacity and an effective capacity – after data reduction – of 15PB. HPE plans to improve performance by use of 3.84GB SSDs based on 3D-NAND technology later this year.

The 3PAR platforms introduce functionality that now includes Online Import for HDS and XIV systems, bi-directional Peer Motion, asynchronous replication and improved end-to-end data integrity with Persistent Checksum.

Since acquisition in 2010, HPE has invested heavily in the 3PAR platform, and has continually brought out new features and products.


NetApp has seen a year of change in terms of strategy with the death of FlashRay and the proposed acquisition of all-flash array start-up Solidfire. The FlashRay product (codenamed Mars) was intended to meet demand for bespoke all-flash systems from competitors like EMC with its XtremIO. However, the project seemed to be continually delayed and suffered the final ignominy when project head Brian Pawlowski left for Pure Storage in May 2015.

NetApp says the IP developed for FlashRay has been integrated into the all-flash version of Clustered ONTAP, otherwise known as the AFF or All-Flash FAS, released in 2014. 

NetApp worked on improvements that optimise read/write performance and most recently implemented inline data deduplication, a feature addition that was long overdue. The top of the range system now scales up to 2880 (NAS) and 960 (SAN) drives, with maximum raw capacities of 10.94PB and 3PB respectively, or 45PB and 15PB after data optimisation. 

The proposed acquisition of Solidfire, announced in December 2015, provides NetApp with the ability to target cost-conscious and automation-obsessed service providers with a system that is more scale-out than FAS can offer.


IBM has continued to focus on its FlashSystem product line, the successor to technology acquired with the purchase of Texas Memory Systems in 2012.

In February 2015, IBM announced the FlashSystem 900 and FlashSystem V9000. The former is a flash appliance that scales to a maximum 105TB of capacity, with write latency as low as 90 microseconds. The latter is a hybrid appliance built from FlashSystem and IBM’s SVC (SAN Volume Controller) technology. This pairing allows IBM to introduce features, such as replication and real-time compression, that would otherwise not exist in the 900 platform.

The positioning for 900 and V9000 models is one of performance over features. The 900 offers low latency and high throughput, while the V9000 sacrifices some latency to implement the benefits of flexible configuration, data reduction and high availability.


Dell continues to focus on all-flash implementations of its SC series arrays, developed from technology acquired when it purchased Compellent in 2011. The Dell SC4020 was one of the first all-flash systems to use TLC drive technology, a lower-cost evolution of the MLC storage used in most all-flash systems today. A fully specified SC4020 provides up to 1PB of storage in a four-controller clustered configuration, with the capability to use any of SLC, MLC or TLC drive types.

Read more about all-flash storage

  • When it comes to choosing between hybrid flash and all-flash storage, the question is increasingly not how much flash is enough, but whether you still need any disk at all.
  • Flash storage 101: Why flash writes are troublesome, why endurance is limited and what suppliers are doing to overcome these issues.

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