The Enterprise

In mid-July SanDisk announced their acquisition of Fusion-io and the acquisition was completed a couple of week prior to Flash Memory Summit. I posted my initial thoughts when the news hit the public, but I feel that it's worth doing a bit deeper analysis now that I have given it some more thought and discussed it with John Scaramuzzo, senior vice president and general manager of SanDisk's enterprise business.

SanDisk has managed to establish itself as one of the key players in the enterprise SSD space over the past few years. The acquisitions of Pliant in 2011 and SMART Storage Systems in 2013 provided SanDisk with strong expertise and product lineups for SATA and SAS SSDs but left the company without a solid long-term plan for PCIe. I heard Pliant's initial roadmap included plans for PCIe-based solutions as well, but it looks like those plans never materialized.

Up until the Fusion-io acquisition, the Lightning PCIe SSA was the only PCIe solution in SanDisk's enterprise product portfolio, and as a matter of fact that drive is internally a SAS-based design with a PCIe to SAS bridge onboard. In other words, SanDisk had practically zero real PCIe solutions for the enterprise, while at the same time SanDisk's biggest competitors, such as Intel and Samsung, have had PCIe drives for a long while already.

Fusion-io's 3.2TB Atomic Series SSD

Fusion-io's strategy and product portfolio, on the other hand, was a complete opposite. From the beginning Fusion-io has focused on PCIe storage, which dates all the way back to 2007 when the company released its first ioDrive that utilized a PCIe x4 interface and was capable of speeds up to 800MB/s. Not only was Fusion-io early in the market, but the company was also able to garner a few massive and very important clients – the most notable being Facebook and Apple. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Fusion-io can be considered as the pioneer of PCIe storage because it was the first company to turn PCIe SSDs and storage in general into a large, successful business.

But stories eventually come to an end. The competitive advantages Fusion-io had were its PCIe technology and several high-level customers, but the advantages were lost when the NAND manufacturers stepped into the PCIe territory. It's nearly impossible for a company that has to source its NAND from a third party to compete against another company that manufactures NAND in-house since the latter will always have advantages in cost. While Fusion-io didn't lose its customers to competitors overnight, it's clear that especially Intel and Samsung snagged a share of Fusion-io's business in the past couple of years.

In a nutshell, the acquisition brings SanDisk the long-needed expertise in PCIe storage along with Fusion-io's broad PCIe product portfolio. The acquisition is now a bit over 100 days in and the Fusion-io employees have been integrated into SanDisk's existing teams. Initially Fusion-io's engineering team was separate and worked under Lance Smith, the former President and COO of Fusion-io, but Mr. Smith decided to leave SanDisk and pursue other options. Last week a data virtualization startup Primary Data announced that Mr. Smith has joined the company as the new CEO, which explains his quick departure from SanDisk.

All the engineering talent has now been unified and the team is lead by Mr. Scaramuzzo. With everyone under the same roof, the roadmaps are now in the process of being integrated to bring the expertise together. It will be a while before we see the fruits of the acquisition, but in the meantime the latest Fusion-io products will transition to SanDisk NAND for increased cost efficiency.

But what about NVMe? That has been the hot topic in the industry this year and I bet many of you are wondering what is SanDisk's and Fusion-io's play in that field. The short version of their strategy is that Fusion-io already has a technology called Virtual Storage Layers (VSL), which is essentially a driver/software stack similar to NVMe. The truth is that NVMe isn't really anything new from a technology perspective, but what makes it alluring for many manufacturers is the fact that the NVMe drivers are universal and already supported by the latest operating systems. Technologies like VSL are rather expensive to develop and require expertise because there is no framework available (i.e. everything has to be developed from scratch), but on the other hand an in-house driver like VSL allows for more customization and optimization.

However, that doesn't mean that SanDisk has no interest on NVMe whatsoever. The company sees that as the entry and mid-level enterprise SSDs move from SATA and SAS to PCIe, NVMe will be one of the key factors because of easy and quick deployment. For that market segment the NVMe spec and its limitations are fine – it's only the high-end segment where the benefits of VSL are more prominent. It's actually likely that many manufacturers will turn to custom NVMe drivers anyway for higher and more optimized performance, and in fact that is already happening with Intel providing its own NVMe driver for the P3600/P3700.

Lastly, let's quickly discuss the ULLtraDIMM. I wrote a quick piece on ULLtraDIMM right after Flash Memory Summit, but SanDisk has already scored Huawei as the third ULLtraDIMM partner (in addition to IBM and Supermicro). The first generation product that is currently available is internally based on a pair of SATA 6Gbps controllers, but SanDisk said that a native DDR to NAND controller is possible in the future if the market adopts the new form factor well. As usual, the industry is fairly slow in adopting new form factors, so it's hard to say whether NAND DIMMs will really take off, but it's a very interesting and potentially useful technology.

Final Words

All in all, SanDisk is definitely one of the most interesting NAND companies going forward. USB drives, eMMC solutions, SSDs and even the storage arrays from the Fusion-io acquisition are all built on NAND, which puts SanDisk in a unique position as it's the only NAND manufacturer that focuses solely on NAND products. The company can't turn to alternative revenue sources like e.g. Intel and Samsung can, but on the other hand that's also SanDisk's strength as all the know-how and experience in the company is related to NAND in one way or the other.

Ultimately next year will be crucial for SanDisk because it determines whether the company can materialize all the underlying potential from the Fusion-io acquisition and become a serious competitor to Intel and Samsung in the enterprise space. The pieces are definitely there, so it's just a matter of execution now.

The Client
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  • hojnikb - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    Yeah, mindset in consumers really needs to change. terabytes, gigabytes, cores and gigaherts are just meaningless for avarage user. What it counts is the user experience. And with ssd out of the box, its surely better. Reply
  • PPalmgren - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    Education of the sales droids is a big factor. Say if Toshiba decided to outfit all their entry level laptops with 256gig SSDs instead of hard drives at cost for the first year of implementation. If they educated the sales reps at best buy/etc., and honestly they'd probably already know, it'd be a gimme. "This gives you better battery life and significantly faster performance, load times of your programs/internet, etc."

    Either that, or sell all of their retail-style SSDs with FREE disc cloning tech and an adapter. The disc, without cloning tech, is one of the absolutely biggest pain in the ass peices to replace. I'd rather get a new motherboard. Of course, now I have a cloning tool, so its easy as pie. I buy low level laptops for family and swap a SSD in and they get good performance for about $300 less than they'd pay for the premium.
    Reply
  • crimsonson - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    "This is actually the part where we ask for your, our readers, help.....Let us know your ideas in the comment section below and I'll make sure to bring them up with SanDisk and other SSD manufacturers."

    Why would you ask such question? That is not your job as a tech journalist. Why would you ask your readers to help a manufacturer to market their product?

    This article reeks of paid advertisement.
    Reply
  • kevith - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    +1 That was I thought immidiately. If I were to answer that, I would want to be paid. And it doesn´t suit a serious site.

    "How do you think we could shove this SSD down your computer-illeterate grandma´s throat?" Hmmmm...!
    Reply
  • madwolfa - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    You guys are interesting... it's done to help market penetration, which in turn will drive the prices down. Consumers win. Reply
  • crimsonson - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    that is short sighted.
    This is Anandtech - supposedly one of the most respected tech sites. Articles like this undermines their main purpose - INDEPENDENT, honest and transparent reporting. Price is only a concern when evaluating a product versus another product. It is not their job to MARKET for a company.

    What happens if they give a great review to a mediocre product to help Sandisk? Would you feel the same way then?
    Reply
  • 'nar - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    While this article is about Sandisk, the problem is about SSD penetration into the computer market in general. The question what not asking how to sell Sandisk SSD's specifically, but SSD's generally. It just happens to be Sandisk that brought the question to the table.

    When the supreme court hears a case to rule on a law, somebody needs to actually bring the case before them. Some person or company has the be sued, or charged, or something. I think you are being too judgmental. Just my opinion.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, December 6, 2014 - link

    This is what I replied to another comment, which I hope clarifies the situation.

    "SanDisk sponsored my trip to FMS and in return we agreed to do an article about what SanDisk presented and showcased at the event. AnandTech doesn't cover international flights, so finding a sponsor was the only way I could attend the show. Note that this is the case with every trade show and is thus nothing new or out of the ordinary.

    However, SanDisk wasn't involved in the editorial process at all. The only condition they had is that the article needs to be linked to FMS and the meetings/presentations at the show, so I decided to write about TLC NAND and the Fusion-io acquisition as both are big things for SanDisk and the market in general, and one of SanDisk's presentation had interesting data about TLC as shown in the graphs in the article.

    We also talked about SSD adoption for a lengthy period of time and I thought it makes sense to reach out to you, our readers, for input. SanDisk did not request or demand this -- it was all my idea. SSD is without a doubt the biggest upgrade that can be made to improve user experience and I'm genuinely interested in what can be done to increase the adoption rate. It's not for the marketing departments, but for all the people that could have better user experience if they knew about SSDs. I also think it's an excellent opportunity for you to be heard and there already great comments, which I'll definitely bring up when I meet with the companies at CES.

    I hope this explains the situation. I'd like to emphasize that we are and will continue to be editorially independent and the purpose of sponsorships is to provide you with better content, for which attending trade shows and building relationships is crucial."
    Reply
  • Chapbass - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    A big one for me is just plain old consumer knowledge. I've talked to many non-technical people, you know how many people have heard of a solid state drive? Exactly zero. Hard to get adoption when the general consumer doesn't even know your product exists. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Friday, December 5, 2014 - link

    To answer the same question:

    For somewhat tech-affine people who want to stick to their current OS installation (many people do) we need software to transition smoothly to a SSD. Samsung already ships it by default, but I suspect most people simply don't know about this.

    And for less tech-savvy handling different storage locations (OS SSD, other internal drive, external drive, cloud 1, cloud 2 etc.) is cumbersome. Anything that eases this pain could help. I'm thinking about hiding the complexity of the storage system from the user. This could e.g. be automatic caching (with write caching and generous cache sizes - I'm not talking about 8 GB!) or manually or automatically creating relocating specific content to the HDD via hard links. SSD vendors could provide a software to statically assign this to certain folders like for media files, folders marked by the user via the explorer context menu or automatically to old & big files (service pack uninstall etc.).
    Reply

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