EMC’s Comeback in Server-Side Memory: Q&A with Pat Gelsinger

In enterprise data centers, servers and storage go together like hot dogs and buns. One isn’t much good without the other. But if your specialty is baking buns, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve the dogs. And that, in essence, is one of the limitations that Hopkinton, MA-based EMC has been trying to overcome lately.

The Hopkinton, MA-based company (NYSE: EMC) is one of the world’s leading vendors of storage arrays for enterprise data centers. Because it has always thought of itself as a storage company, it has never crossed the line into building components for servers. And that’s how, even though EMC was first to market with Flash-based memory technology for enterprises, a much smaller company, Utah-based Fusion-IO, was able to come out of nowhere in 2005 and take the lead in a burgeoning new market for solid-state Flash memory chips for servers. Today HP, IBM, and Dell all put Fusion-IO’s ioDrive cards in their servers; the company went public last year and is valued at around $2.1 billion.

But it’s a natural market for EMC, and it wants in, badly. At an event yesterday in San Francisco, EMC took the wraps off a competitor to ioDrive called VFCache. It’s basically a card full of Flash modules that fits into a “PCI Express” or PCIe slot in a computer server, where it provides an instant memory upgrade. That allows the CPU to get work done faster, without having to slow down to wait for data from the storage array.

EMC's Pat Gelsinger introducing VFCache, aka Project Lightning

How EMC came back from behind in the server-side Flash business is an interesting story of internal innovation. Pat Gelsinger, president and chief operating officer of EMC’s flagship Information Infrastructure Products division, told me yesterday that to help EMC catch up with Fusion-IO, he authorized an unusual skunk works project, with most of the engineering team isolated in EMC’s facility in Tel Aviv, Israel. “We hired the very best people and treated it like an internal startup,” Gelsinger said. “We set incredibly focused goals for the team. We told them not to go to corporate meetings,” but to concentrate solely on “Project Lightning,” the code name for the VFCache product line.

That was the only way to get the job done once EMC had determined that it had to build, not buy, its own alternative PCIe Flash product, Gelsinger says. “Organic innovation is very hard in a big, successful company,” he says. “There are a lot of antibodies saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, we can’t go that fast.’ There are a thousand reasons these things can slow down in a company. So having a very hands-on, top-down focus, combined with a very maniacal, senior, aggressive team, is really what’s required.”

Flash memory, a technology pioneered by Toshiba, is far more expensive than hard drive storage, but it also works much faster. Companies have begun to put extra Flash-based “tiers” of memory between servers and storage arrays in order to address the gap created by ongoing improvements in CPU speeds. Hard drives just can’t read or write data as fast as today’s multicore processors can suck it in and spit it out, which means CPUs are often sitting idle, waiting for data to arrive.

To speed things up, EMC has been adding Flash memory to its storage arrays since 2008—in fact, it has shipped more Flash memory to enterprise customers than all other vendors combined. But before Project Lightning, it hadn’t tried putting Flash into servers themselves, where the benefits are … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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