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By Jeff St. John

Flash memory is going corporate.

Sun Microsystems Inc. (NSDQ: JAVA) on Monday unveiled a new line of storage systems that will require about a quarter of the power – and cost about a quarter of the price – of competing systems.

The power reduction in the Amber Road storage system comes largely because Sun has replaced some of the hard drives that would ordinarily sit inside of a storage unit with flash, the kind of chips found inside MP3 players, digital cameras and phones. Amber Road also heavily relies on open-source technology, which reduces the cost.

Flash can allow a computer more rapid access to data, and it also consumes far less power – unlike drives, flash memory doesn't spin. Flash, however, is much more expensive than hard drives, and hard drives can also hold far more data.

In Sun's system, commonly accessed data will stay in flash while the drives will function more like long-term storage, John Fowler, executive vice-president of Sun's systems group, said in a Monday conference call.

Several companies are pursuing a similar strategy, said John Handy, director of semiconductor market research firm Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, Calif. Innovations in data storage is the kind of topic that puts most people into a deep sleep, but expect to hear more in the coming years. IBM, Sun and others are dedicating massive amounts of money and research toward the problem of fast, accurate data retrieval in a world drowning in numbers.

In early 2008, EMC Corp. launched its Symmetrix line of data storage products that use flash drives to improve performance and energy efficiency, Handy said.

And researchers at IBM have discussed research into using solid state data drives in data storage, Handy said. But the company has not made any official announcements on plans for integrating such research into products, he added. IBM, however, has replaced drives with flash in a slim blade server.

With the cost of flash drives falling by about 60 percent a year over the past three years, using them to replace enterprise drives – the fast-spinning drives that now serve data centers' most time-critical needs – is starting to make financial sense "for the very highest-needs applications," such as financial transaction processing, Handy said.

And while up-front costs are a concern, data center operators also are looking for ways to reduce power consumption, he said. Energy efficiency, in fact, is one of the major areas of competition for big iron manufacturers. Hewlett-Packard earlier this month released a technology called Dynamic Power Cap ping that puts a ceiling on how much power a rack of servers or other equipment can draw.

There's good reason to do so, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last year estimated that data centers, along with servers, will double their energy consumption to 100 billion kilowatt-hours by 2012 (see Data Centers Could Hit 'Resource Crisis').

That could cost data-center owners $7.4 billion a year in energy costs, and require building the equivalent of 10 new power plants to meet those increased power needs, the EPA reported.

And while the economy may be slowing, there was about $19 billion in datacenter construction projects undertaken by 21 large customers in the U.S. in June, according to Dean Nelson, who runs global lab and data center design services for Sun (see Data Center Power Consumption: By the Numbers).

Companies with big data storage are looking for ways to power those needs. Google for one, filed a patent earlier this year for a floating data center that would be powered by ocean waves and currents (see Google Sets Sail With Ocean Power Patent).

The search giant raised eyebrows last year when it proposed building a coal-fired power plant in Iowa for a data center, further underlining the demand that data storage and processing will make on the nation's power grid.

Source: Sun Micro: Flash Memory Goes Corporate