Last night Fusion-io made a pretty interesting product announcement, introducing a software toolkit that enables storage networking / sharing of Fusion-io cards in industry-standard servers via Fibre Channel or Infiniband. You can read the Fusion-io announcement here, as well as a good article from The Register’s Chris Mellor here. In this post I’ll share a few thoughts on Pure Storage’s take on what this means, and how this impacts the broader flash market.

1. The Tier 0 / Tier 1 segmentation still holds. Over the past year we’ve been espousing a particular view of the flash market, where existing flash solutions can be largely segmented into two categories, Tier 0 “performance-optimized, server-centric” flash geared at accelerating point databases, and Tier 1 “cost/capacity-optimized” flash, geared at replacing existing Tier 1 disk storage for consolidated workloads. If you caught EMC’s recent earnings release, you’ll see that they largely agree with us (slide 14). The Tier 0 play is all about performance and largely serves an enthusiast niche in the market, while the Tier 1 market is all about transforming the existing $15B performance storage market to a modern flash-centric architecture. Today’s Fusion-io announcement is squarely aimed at Tier 0: enabling Fusion-io to better compete for the performance enthusiast niche.

2. Addressing some of the “inconvenient truths” of host-based flash. In reality, today’s announcement is really much more of an admission by Fusion-io of some of the challenges they’ve seen in taking host-based flash to the next level of adoption in the market. There’s no getting around the fact that host-based flash is A) rapidly commoditizing as new vendors enter weekly, B) expensive to deploy due to the inherent inefficiency of per-server deployment and management, C) difficult for customers to adopt given the architectural upheaval it causes, and D) difficult and expensive to protect data stored on it via RAID/mirroring/snapshots/replication, etc. Yes, it turns out the storage industry got it right a couple of decades ago when we moved to the networked storage model, and the flash vendors are quickly coming to the same realization.

3. Tier 0 flash appliances are still a long way away from being storage arrays – remember it’s all about the software. If you look at what flash appliances are delivering today (TMS, Violin, Fusion-io ION, EMC Thunder, etc.), they are pretty on-par with storage arrays from the late 90s (basic HA, simple RAID, rigid capacity allocation), just a heck of a lot faster. But for the past decade the war between EMC, NetApp, et al. has been fought largely on the software battleground, not the hardware battleground – the hardware has become a commodity. And in particular, for Tier 0 flash appliances to move down-market into the mainstream storage market, they’ve got to deliver software in two key dimensions: high-performance data reduction to make flash affordable (inline deduplication, compression, thin provisioning, etc.) and enterprise-class resiliency and scale to make flash trustworthy and usable (active/active HA, online scale-out and scale-up, dual-parity RAID, snapshots, replication, etc.). This rich software layer, of course, is what Pure Storage focuses on as its core area of innovation.

4. Build your own…good luck! Many vendors have tried their hand at enabling “build your own array” software solutions over the years, providing storage management software to run on industry-standard servers for customers to configure with whatever hardware they like (I must confess, I may have even been a product manager for such a solution at one point in my life!). But such solutions have always failed to make an impact on the market at large. In the end, it turns out that rigorous system integration, support, HCL, and testing, testing, testing matter! And in this day and age of shrinking staff and budgets, who has time to run a sideline storage manufacturing business? It’s just not worth the time and risk.

ION represents a nice step forward for making server-centric Tier 0 flash more usable, but let’s face it – it’s no flash array, and it’s not something that will improve the lives of the mainstream storage user. Pure Storage’s strategy has remained the same from day 1: focus on the software innovations necessary to dramatically transform affordable Tier 1 storage with flash, and allow everyone to participate in the real flash revolution.