By Michael Kanellos
It's about the size ten business cards stacked on top of each other, consumes less power than a compact florescent and it holds 24 gigabytes.
Sun Microsystems (JAVA), with the help of Samsung Electronics (GM:SSNLF), has created a solid state drive for servers as part of an overall effort to popularize flash drives as a way to curb energy consumption and, of course, remind everyone of Sun's commitment to energy efficiency (see Sun's Take on Green Datacenters and Sun: Data Center Efficiency for Everyone).
Unlike existing solid state drives, Sun's Open Flash Module drive is not based around the same designs and chassis developed for traditional hard drives, which are far bigger than needed. Standard chassis must accommodate spinning platters measuring 3.5 to 2.5 inches in diameter: By contrast, flash drives only have to accommodate a few chips, and the chips get smaller every one to two years. Shrinking the size of the entire drive essentially will let server makers integrate the entire drive, or a couple of drives, onto the motherboard of the computer, thereby cutting down raw materials as well as the overall volume of computers.
The 24-gigabyte Open Flash Module consumes 2 watts of power. A traditional spinning hard drive might consume 8 to 16 watts maximum, according to Michael Cornwell, the lead technologist for flash at Sun. Multiply that over the thousands of drives in some data centers and you're talking substantial power savings.
To help popularize the concept, Sun will freely license the design and submit it to JEDEC, a standards body. The drive also contains a specific type of flash, created by Samsung, tweaked for the demands of datacenters.
While the Open Flash Module is just a working prototype at the moment, Sun also released a 32-gigabyte drive for servers that costs $1,199.
Welcome to the world of flash colonization. Historically far more expensive than hard drives, flash memory has steadily decreased in price, and increased in density, at a rapid pace in the last few years. Although still more expensive than hard drives, flash memory uses far less memory and can provide better performance on a variety of applications.
Consumer electronics makers like Apple (AAPL) began to substitute flash for hard drives as a way to reduce the size of its products and improve battery life. Now, IBM, H-P (HPQ), Sun and others are touting flash as a way to reduce power consumption in data centers. It can't replace drives, admits Cornwell. The data storage demands of most corporations are growing far too fast for that. But flash can displace some of the demand for DRAM, the memory that temporarily stores data for processors, as well as drives.
Besides consuming less energy, flash drives can also keep up better with the speed of modern day processors.
"As the technology gets more prevalent, it will have a dramatic change on how that backend storage gets used," he said.