Bob Kovacs /
11.21.2011 12:00AM
SSD-Based Servers Gain Traction

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—Every now and then, a new technology stands poised to sweep out the old. In an industry with a pulse that depends on technology, it is interesting to see how aging products shuffle off this mortal coil and the newborns are given room to grow.

So it is with servers, as disk-based storage systems are just now being edged into late middle age by solid-state drive (SSD) upstarts. The change is slow at the moment, but the chances are good that the switch will accelerate as costs drop and performance increases in the next couple of years.

Harmonic MediaCenter SSD server
It's not just about price, either. Solid-state servers have significant benefits over older disk-based systems that may result in both better quality signals and workflow improvements.

"One of the most exciting benefits of SSD is actually the increase in bandwidth it delivers," said Andy Warman, senior product marketing manager for Harris Broadcast. "What it means to users is they [can] use more high-data-rate codecs and have plenty of overhead left for file interchange. This blend allows the technology to fit ingest and playout cache server environments where the number of hours is less critical than the speed with which media can be interchanged, and/or where image quality is a key requirement."

Earlier this year, Harris started shipping the Nexio Volt SSD server, which fits in 1RU with support for up to four HD channels, including up-, down- and cross-conversion. Among other benefits, the Nexio Volt SSD delivers up to a 30-percent improvement in power usage compared to disk-based servers.

Warman noted that price is still an important factor with SSD servers, as disk-based devices hold more for your money—at least for now. However, Harris has a plan to improve the acceptance of solid-state systems.

"Harris has been keen to seed the market by absorbing a lot of the drive cost for customers to make the product more attractive," Warman said, Flash memory used in SSD devices has the same technology used in SD and P2 cards, and there has been some unease that flash memory is not as long lasting as other storage media.

"There are still concerns of the number of writes media can take," Warman said. "Over time, experience with this media will build confidence as it is used in a variety of different roles."

Andy Warman, senior product marketing manager for Harris Broadcast
NEW INTRODUCTION

Earlier this month at the InterBEE show in Japan, Harmonic (which now owns the popular Omneon product line) introduced its first solid-state server product, the MediaCenter SSD.

"MediaCenter SSD is an integrated video server system [that] supports up to six externally connected Spectrum MediaPort modules," said Mark Cousins, product line manager for media servers at Harmonic. "MediaCenter SSD can record or play 12 50-Mbps HD channels, and it is fully compatible with other members of the Spectrum family of video servers."

Cousins emphasized that SSD storage is more shock-resistant and rugged than disk servers, and noted the potential that brings to certain applications.

"Because SSDs have no moving parts, they are inherently more reliable than spinning disk," Cousins said. "There are no heads to crash, or magnetic surfaces to degrade, or motors and bearings to fail."

"MediaCenter SSD is particularly well-suited for remote or unattended play-out applications, outside broadcast or other harsh environments, and anywhere else that demands maximum storage reliability," he said.

If you've shopped the local computer store, you've probably seen SSD drives at increasingly attractive prices, particularly when you factor in the speed advantage of SSD over disk drives. However, Harmonic recognized that these drives weren't ready for the prime time of broadcast operations.

Todd Robinson, marketing product manager for video servers at Ross Video
"Consumer-grade or laptop SSDs are entirely unsuitable for the demands of broadcast playout," Cousins said. "We selected commercial-grade, robust components that deliver the reliability broadcasters expect for their most demanding applications."

IS THE COST RIGHT?

As good as SSD servers sound, some manufacturers are still deliberating if the product is ready—both from a price and a storage capacity standpoint.

"Early SSD drives were targeted either at the high performance PC market, gaming and laptops or low-performance industrial applications, and they weren't quite ready as an enterprise-class offering the type of performance and reliability that our customers expect," said Todd Robinson, marketing product manager for video servers at Ross Video. "While Ross does not currently offer a solid-state solution in the SoftMetal line of video servers, it is an industry technology that we have been keeping a very close watch on."

Robinson highlighted two points about SSD drives that keep them tantalizingly close to, but still just out of the mainstream.

"Although the initial cost of an SSD is much higher than a traditional spinning disk, the reduced operating costs, (power consumption and cooling) can balance each other out in low-capacity servers," Robinson said. "However, storage capacity for an enterprise-class SSD [range] from 64GB to 256GB. At these capacities, SSD cannot provide enough storage at a reasonable price."

Still, Ross Video may soon test the SSD waters.

Harris Nexio Amp
"We are looking at solid state drives as an optional configuration of our existing SoftMetal SMD-3000 series products," Robinson said. "The nice thing about SSDs is their availability in common form-factors and interfaces with HDDs, so customers can choose the appropriate technology for their requirement. Currently there isn't that much customer demand for SSDs, so our view is that it has become more of a marketing 'check box' than practical solution."

Grass Valley's T2 iDDR disk recorder uses SSDs and disk drives to provide an ingest/play-out hub for live events and small broadcasters. With a 2.5 inch SSD slot, the T2 iDDR can swap a couple hundred GB of data in a few seconds, while still playing out the broadcast video streams.

One other way that SSD drives are starting to be seen in the industry is in a hybrid form that has both SSD and disk drives in the same device. An example is the SeaChange MediaServer 1200, which uses rotating disk drives for the main storage and an SSD as the boot drive for the internal computer.

Flash memory has proved a game changer for origination devices such as cameras, where the small size, light weight and ruggedness of memory cards let cameras go places and do more than tape-based camcorders ever could. Today, SSD servers are showing new levels of ruggedness and power efficiency that can have real value to content creators and distributors, but it's clear that price is still a barrier to many.

Will SSD technology remain a niche product or will it sweep disk-based servers out of the workflow and into sad museum displays? We will probably know in the next two years.

Bob Kovacs is a video producer and video engineer. He can be reached at bob@bobkovacs.com.



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