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The Week In Storage: 3D XPoint Optane And Lenovo SSDs Spotted, Google's SSDs Get Pwned, Toshiba Rising

The week in storage began with Samsung's 850 Evo, which breaks through the high-density barrier with 4 TB of capacity. The right balance of performance and cost is always important, so the high capacity alone doesn't make the SSD a winner. Chris Ramseyer tested the 850 Evo to see if it would take flight, and the verdict is resoundingly positive, as long as one ignores the $1,499 price tag. 

We covered the latest news on the Seagate restructuring plan as the company announced positive preliminary earnings, which sent its stock into happy territory. However, the silver cloud has a dark lining in the form of a total of 8,100 layoffs. The restructuring doesn't include just severing employees; news trickled out that the company is also closing its plant in Havant, England, which it obtained when it bought Xyratex.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. government cannot compel Microsoft to turn over email data that it physically stores in other countries. This watershed ruling will help protect the rights of foreign citizens, as the U.S. will have to work in tandem with local authorities to issue a warrant for the data. Several countries now have indigenous data regulations that require all data to be stored locally due to the perception (and perhaps reality) of ever-prying U.S. government eyes.

NAS is becoming increasingly popular as we look for beefier methods to store our digital lives. The Drobo B810n 8-bay offers plenty of storage capacity in an aesthetically attractive design. The nuts and bolts of software interaction and critical capabilities are what separate the wheat from the chaff, but Drobo may have taken simplicity too far.

Of course, there are always other interesting tidbits spread out over the week, so let's take a closer look at a few of the latest.

3D XPoint Optane SSDs Spotted

Standards bodies and interoperability labs are great places to watch if you are interested in a glimpse of the future. The University Of New Hampshire InterOperability Lab (UNH-IOL) ensures that NVMe SSDs are compliant with the NVMe spec. To that effect, it holds regular plugfests, which bring together a multitude of vendors (20 companies in this case) to test their respective SSDs. Devices that pass the tests make it to the UNH-IOL Integrators List, which proves the devices are up to NVMe snuff.

The list now includes the recently certified Intel Optane, which is Intel's 3D XPoint-powered SSD of the future. Intel and Micron tout that 3D XPoint has 1000x the performance and endurance of NAND with 10x the density of DRAM and Intel revealed that it helped establish the NVMe interface with its then-secret 3D XPoint in mind.

3D XPoint performance would overwhelm SAS or SATA connections, so the use of the PCIe interface is hardly surprising. However, 3D XPoint can also be used as memory DIMMs that allow the computer to address the storage as memory (hence the "Storage Class Memory" moniker). Intel disclosed that its Kaby Lake platforms would be 3D XPoint-compatible, which indicates that it will support memory mapping via the RAM slots, but OS/application support for storage class memory is rudimentary and still evolving.

The 3D XPoint-powered Optane SSDs are the near-term home run hitter, as they will certainly be faster than any NAND alternative (though just how much remains open to debate), and NVMe has broad compatibility.

The Optane future is nearly upon us, as the listing indicates that Intel has a fully functional and complete device ready. The Flash Memory Summit and Intel's own IDF event are approaching quickly. We suspect the full unveiling of Optane will occur at one of these two events.

On another note, Samsung also has an "NVMe 96X Series" listed, and it bears a different firmware than the OEM models we recently tested. The listing implies that we will see the consumer version of the SSD soon, which Samsung will likely unveil at its upcoming yearly event.  

There is also a Lenovo Atasani M.2 SSD listed, which suggests that Lenovo is now building its own SSDs. Samsung is the traditional Lenovo SSD supplier, which makes that finding all the more interesting. 

Google's Pwns Its Own SSDs; Clouds Go Dark

One of the best things about the cloud is that we do not have to manage the servers and storage attached to it; we merely consume the end product with as little thought as possible. Oh, the freedom!

One of the worst things about the cloud is that we do not have any control over said infrastructure, so when an outage occurs we are powerless. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain accurate reports of cloud outages and disturbances, as there are no industry-standard rules and regulations that govern reporting. Some disturbances go unreported, thus giving the cloud more of a bulletproof image than it deserves.

Google is one of the cloud vendors that appear to be transparent about its outages. On July 10, the company reported there were severe problems in one of its service zones for 211 minutes. The outage may not seem to be a huge issue, unless you are a company that generates money, or is entirely reliant upon Google's services.

The company stated that instances using SSDs as their root partition were likely completely unresponsive during this period and that secondary SSD volumes suffered "slightly elevated latency and errors."

A previously unseen software bug, triggered by the two concurrent maintenance events, meant that disk blocks which became unused as a result of the rebalance were not freed up for subsequent reuse, depleting the available SSD space in the zone until writes were rejected.

The details of the event are telling, at least if you understand the inner working of SSDs. Google is one of the world's largest SSD manufacturers because many of its SSDs are actually custom units that it designs and manufactures itself. The details of how many of the company's SSDs are custom units is a closely guarded secret, but Google builds so many SSDs that it appeared as one of the largest SSD vendors in some SSD market reports.

SSD designs are generally broken into two categories: those that control their own inner workings, and those that the host computer manages directly. Virtually every single consumer SSD, such as the ones we pop into the desktop, are self-contained SSDs that manage the myriad functions internally and independently from the host.

The host manages some enterprise SSDs, which gives the user more granularity and control. The fact that the blocks were not re-designated as open, and summarily returned to use, suggests that software is managing the SSDs at the block layer. This technique fits well with the software-defined nature of today's hyperscale data centers, but it also opens the door to unexpected issues due to host interactions that expose it to numerous various software- or host-imposed errors.

In either case, Google has identified the problem and is already testing a fix on non-production machines in tandem with boosting its error monitoring capabilities to speed its reaction time. The outage serves as a reminder that we are still in the early days of the cloud, and these teething problems are a perfect example of why many companies are reluctant to be entirely reliant upon cloud services.

This Week's Storage Tidbit

Trendfocus released its preliminary CQ2 2016 HDD market update, which revealed that Toshiba is making remarkable gains in the HDD market. Western Digital and Seagate recorded a 12- and 17-percent decline (respectively) in year over year HDD shipments, while Toshiba chalked up a 26 percent gain. Toshiba has a much smaller presence than WDC and Seagate, so it is easier for it to score an impressive growth rate, but any growth at all in the plummeting HDD market is impressive.

There have been unconfirmed rumblings that WDC and Seagate's system efforts may have angered the OEM overlords, who are now moving to Toshiba in retaliation. Toshiba is emerging from a restructuring effort in the wake of an accounting scandal, and many speculated that the company might sell off its HDD division. The latest market reports indicate quite the turnaround for the Toshiba HDD unit, so it's a safe bet the company's HDD efforts will soldier on.

Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.