Spansion promises power cuts for the Google club

Flash-memory maker Spansion is trying to convince big Internet server farm users such as Google that it can slash power bills by replacing much of the DRAM on the machines’ motherboards with flash memory.

Some flash-memory makers are trying to sell server makers on the idea of putting their solid-state devices into hard drive modules. But Spansion plans to introduce a new type of flash memory later this year that can operate on the dual-in-line memory modules (DIMMs) used in most servers, claiming that a shift to flash will make it possible to consolidate as many as four servers into one.

Although the processors in servers consume more than 100W apiece, the contribution from DRAM has been creeping up. John Nation, director of corporate marketing at Spansion, claimed that by converting much of the server’s memory to flash, users would see dramatic power savings. Part of the reason lies in the non-volatility of flash it does not need to be continually refreshed in the same way as DRAM.

“We will put some intelligence into the front-end to make it look like DRAM. However, we have to think about how the system works, so we are talking to two levels of customer here: the server manufacturers and then there is their customer base, companies such as Google, Facebook and Friendster,” Nation explained.

The problem with flash memory is that, although it can more or less match DRAM on read speeds, writes are orders of magnitude slower. Nation claimed that some of the large Internet companies have applications that can work with this, using the flash to store content that is written to very rarely, such as static content, video and search indexes. Database pages would be stored in the remaining DRAM section.

Nation claimed that it should be possible to pack more capacity into the flash modules than is possible with DRAMs largely because the increases in DRAM capacity have rolled off since the end of the 1990s, whereas flash development has intensified. “We are looking at densities of 4Gb and up,” Nation claimed. “We could have one server perform the function of four DRAM-only servers.”

Nation refused to talk about the details of the approach that Spansion is taking with its DRAM-replacement technology. It is unclear how the DIMMs will be buffered as tests performed by analysts such as Neal Nelson and Associates have shown that the buffers used in the modules contribute heavily to power consumption when the server is idling.

A product launch is planned for later in the year based on a new generation of flash the company has named Eclipse. “We have working today a concept that demonstrates the advantage that is not using the optimised Eclipse technology,” said Nation, conceding that the replacement of DRAM with flash will call for some changes in the software of servers if not the motherboard design. “Software is not a particularly major issue but it is different. That is why we are talking about it now. We could see revenue on this technology this year.”

Image: Spansion has the DRAMs used in big server farms in its sights

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