QLogic (NASDAQ:QLGC) will start shipping products based on its Mt. Rainier technology in 2013 and enter the race to grab share in the emerging Solid-State Drive (SSD) I/O acceleration market. The wild SSD market is characterized by hundreds of old and new companies, first generation hardware-centric products, explosive growth for storage acceleration applications, and the potential for an epic expansion to broad mass storage applications.
After seeing a demonstration of Mt. Rainier, it is clear QLogic has sped past pioneering competitors such as Fusion-io (NYSE:FIO) and LSI (NASDAQ:LSI) with next generation sophistication which will be very hard to duplicate. I have not seen side-by-side comparisons of performance or pricing. However, if both are competitive, major QLogic customers like HP (NYSE:HPQ), IBM, NetApp (NASDAQ:NTAP) and Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) will want to offer Mt. Rainier based products because the technology innovations will be extremely useful in a data center. In my opinion, the benefits of what QLogic is bringing to the data center, sharing PCie SSDs in a SAN, are so compelling; many IT organizations will choose Mt. Rainier based products even if they are not the fastest or least expensive.
SSD Market Overview
Explosive growth - IT professionals surveyed by IT Brand Pulse in August, 2012, projected a 7.5x increase in SSD storage in the next 24 months, as a percentage of their combined SSD and HDD storage capacity.
Highly fragmented - From hundreds of large well-known storage vendors and small unknown SSD start-ups, IT professionals selected seven different companies as brand leaders in no less than ten distinct product segments: All DRAM SAN SSDs, All Flash SAN SSDs, All Flash NAS SSDs, Unified SAN/NAS SSDs, PCIe Adapter SSDs, SAS/SATA SSD Modules, Cache SSDs (software only, appliances and adapters), NAS Cache Appliances, Hybrid SSDHDD Systems, and SSD Controller Chips. Mt. Rainier technology fits in the PCIe Adapter SSDs and Cache SSD categories.
Based on the results of the IT Brand Pulse survey, no one product dominates the SSD landscape. In fact no one product has been deployed by 20% of the respondents. The many types of SSD systems mirror the many types of HDD systems, underscoring what will eventually happen; a broad industry makeover of storage system content from HDD to SSD. The largest group of respondents (40.3%) said they had not yet deployed SSDs, which indicates a vast greenfield opportunity still exists for SSD vendors.
Potential Expansion - The SSD market is starting an enormous expansion from a $1 billion "acceleration" market-where small amounts of SSD are used to front-end traditional HDD storage-to a $30 billion "mass storage" market where SSDs displace HDDs inside servers and networked storage systems. Almost half the IT professionals surveyed said they would completely replace HDDs when the cost per gigabyte of SSDs is within 20% of HDDs. Major OEMS are listening to their customers, and have started to line up their SSD suppliers and the internal IP needed to change out the guts of their storage systems from HDDs to SSDs.
During the IBM analyst call about their acquisition of Texas Memory Systems, IT Brand Pulse asked if IBM saw IT buying behavior changing and SSD penetrating Tier-1 storage. The answer from IBM was:
"You bring up a great point, and that's one of the major objectives we've got around this acquisition, and being ahead of that curve as that happens. Certainly it hasn't taken off to that level yet, but we're trying to be prepared to skate to where the puck's going to be in the future--no doubt about it. We do see that with the improvements made within the technology of sold-state, the improvements in the IP and core development talent that Holly and the team have here with TMS, and what they've been able to bring to the market. We're going to see a more pervasive use, a more widespread use of flash technology, beyond what application support it's provided in the past. The costs are going to continue to come down. The performance is going to continue to be high, much higher than any disk-based-only offering. The resiliency, the endurance, the capabilities of the product have still got some runway ahead of them. I fully anticipate that it will become a much bigger percentage of the tier-1, tier-0 capacity will be stored on flash. To be honest with you, that is the major reason for our partnership and our interest in the partnership."
Basics of Mt. Rainier Evolutionary
Mt. Rainier is the first technology innovation which blends Fibre Channel HBAs, Caching and SSD management into one solution. The result is a PCIe adapter which consolidates the function of a Fibre Channel HBA, transparent caching software and SSD management. IT professionals now have the ability to deploy a single I/O adapter with transparent caching and SSD management that reduce management complexity and overall costs. This product differentiation is valuable, but not enough to leap-frog incumbent PCIe SSD leaders such as Fusion-io, Intel, LSI, Marvell (NASDAQ:MRVL), and Micron (NASDAQ:MU).
Shared PCIe SSD Revolutionary
QLogic is touting the ability of Mt. Rainier to simplify server-based caching, but what is far more important is a game-changing feature called "shared caching" which is described four bullets down in the QLogic press release. Shared cache is the ability to combine the individual SSD caches into a single transparent virtual cache pool, where the combined cache is available to all servers as needed for I/O and application acceleration. Shared cache is inherent in external SAN SSD systems, but until now, non-existent for PCIe based SSD solutions, which effectively use a direct attached 'server captive' cache model.
With transparent shared cache in a Cache Area Network, the utilization of expensive SSD storage used for cache is maximized. The quantity of cache, server access to the cache, and storage access to the cache is tailored exactly to the needs of the each server on the Cache Area Network. Additionally, a shared transparent cache brings the benefits of SSD I/O acceleration to a wider variety of applications in the Enterprise, including application clusters and workloads that cross multiple physical servers.
In the old days storage consisted of non-shared direct-attached storage inside of a server, and utilization averaged around 30%. The invention of shared NAS and SAN storage drove the utilization of storage to 80% and beyond as virtual disk drives were tailored for each server. The same principal applies to server virtualization. Before VMware (NYSE:VMW), average non-shared server CPU utilization hovered around 30%. Now IT pros are loading virtual machines onto servers until CPU resources are fully utilized.
QLogic is effectively leading the industry from non-shared direct-attached cache, to a Cache Area Network architecture. The value of Cache Area Networks will be intuitive to IT professionals and CFOs because sharing IT resources to consolidate infrastructure is a basic best practice, and delivers a powerful return on investment.
Oh, and by the way, Mt. Rainier technology can also be configured to emulate a hard disk drive in a server. For example it would appear as an E: drive on a Windows server. In this case the SSD is permanently storing data, not caching data permanently stored on another HDD-based system. This is another important market segment which Mt. Rainier can address, and offer the same unique benefits of sharing PCIe SSD resources.
The bottom line is this: products based on Mt. Rainier technology are a legitimate contender for QLogic growth engine of the future. If Mt. Rainier uniquely allows IT organizations to share expensive SSD resources across servers, OEMs will fill the PCIe SSD adapter piece of their SSD portfolio with another product from their trusted supplier QLogic. The innovative and useful shared PCIe SSD caching capability of Mt. Rainier gives QLogic a chance to disrupt the momentum of incumbent leaders, and grab significant PCIe cache SSD market share.