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Flash virtualization all the rage among startups

As the virtualization market matures, functionality that used to live in the underlying infrastructure is steadily being absorbed into virtual machines.

One of the hotter areas for emerging companies of late is software that allows agents inside guest VMs to automate the use of host-based Flash storage as cache in order to boost application performance.

Last week, FlashSoft, a Flash caching company which came out of stealth at VMworld 2011, released a new version of its beta product. Fusion-io has been around longer than most with its solid-state drives, but it too is also moving into the automated caching space following its acquisition of IO Turbine earlier this year.

This week, another company came out of stealth called Nevex, which also claims to have invented a better Flash caching mousetrap. Like FlashSoft, Nevex’s CacheWorks product uses agents inside guest VMs to automate the use of Flash as cache. Also like FlashSoft, Nevex plans to make its software work at the hypervisor level to eliminate the need for guest agents.

Where Nevex says it differs from other offerings is that its software caches at the file, rather than the block level. This means users can select which specific applications to accelerate using Flash, instead of letting an algorithm move hot blocks into the cache. Nevex also integrates with Windows to control which data to promote to DRAM for multi-level caching.

When SSDs first came on the enterprise IT scene, they were a part of the storage area network (SAN), sitting behind a storage controller. But with these newer offerings, the use of Flash as cache on the host, rather than as persistent storage on a back-end array, is the vision.

In the meantime, with the advent of new technologies, it’s becoming easier to picture the entire enterprise data center infrastructure, from the virtualized network to this type of virtualized storage, running as software inside x86 hosts. I’m reminded of the old Sun tagline, “the network is the computer.” Sun has since been gobbled up by Oracle, of course, but it feels like we’re finally seeing that concept come to fruition.

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