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Why Apple's Wozniak loves flash storage drives

Steve Wozniak talks about storage startup

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Earlier this year, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak accepted the position of chief scientist at startup solid state drive company Fusion-io. It's the first time since 1972, when he worked in HP's calculator division, that he's held a technologist's position for a company that wasn't his own.

Unlike many other solid state vendors, Fusion-io doesn't manufacture a NAND flash drive product in a 2.5-in. or 3.5-in hard drive form factor. The company makes PCIe cards with up to 640GB of capacity and 1.6GB/sec. throughput that can be inserted directly into servers, greatly increasing performance for I/O intensive applications while also shrinking space requirements when compared to high end hard disk drives.

Since joining the company, Wozniak hasn't widely discussed why he chose to become a member of Fusion-io's advisory board and then its chief scientist. We spoke to him about that choice and what he sees as the future of solid state storage technology. The following are excerpts from that interview.

Becoming a member of any company's board that you didn't help create seems uncharacteristic of you, so why did you join Fusion-io's?

I joined because I saw a remarkable vision, but more than the product vision, I saw the people who created the vision. Their overall design methodologies lead to good clean products. That's what I saw in these people. I really expected to be invited to join the advisory board, but I sort of got a position in the company, which was exciting because by then I was so sold on the company.

And, I'm sort of a purist. I like things with electrons moving instead of heavy metal parts, maybe because I didn't grow up as a mechanical person. Rather than spinning atoms, I like to get down to electrons, and who knows, maybe in the future it will be photons.

You've never really been a storage guy. What attracted you to this technology?

Well, I was a storage guy really early - in floppy disks. I don't come from the heavy duty storage area where you've got RAID arrays and fiber optic channels. But, actually, the way I approached even designing my floppy disk structures was to take out a lot of middle man technology that wasn't needed, to look at the overall problem and get from the start to the finish in one quick jump. And, I saw those same principles had been applied in designing [Fusion-io's] product.

Also, I've been close to a lot of people who worked in data centres - good friends, and it's just like data centres always have huge racks and racks of equipment. And, almost every entity in the world is basing its operations on servers and disk storage, so it's almost unlimited. So you're not confined to one little niche.

What initially caught your eye, though?

I went into a meeting totally blind. I hadn't researched the company. I had just agreed to have lunch in Los Gatos with some of the engineers. I'd met a couple of really bright Ph.Ds like [Fusion-io chief technology officer] David Flynn ... and his background was with supercomputers and disk storage devices. He'd worked a very long time with a low budget at home, sort of the way we'd done it at Apple, and he had gotten far enough to have developed some very good working models. He didn't go down to a venture capitalist with a sheet of paper and say here's what we'd like to do, and give away all the company to begin with. I really admired the way he'd structured his startup.

I started asking questions like, how would it compare to this, or how would it compare to that technology? How did you solve these problems? The answers came back very knowledgeable, and very much in line with my thinking about how you should design good products. They completed their financing round, which I had nothing to do with, and then they offered me a position in the company and I accepted. It's the first time I accepted a position in a company that I didn't create myself since 1972 with HP calculators.

What do you see as the role of solid state drives today and how do you see that changing over the next five to 10 years?

I've been a very big fan of solid state storage. I had dynamic RAMs backed up with power in huge towerlike structures that I'd connect to early Macintosh computers. I'd use that as my disk and it would double my speed. I've been a fan of solid state disk in my laptops, I always ordered them and paid extra for the solid state disk. I'm just sort of a purist. With music devices, even before the first iPod, I preferred to use solid state storage when it cost a thousand dollars to have enough solid state storage for an airplane flight. So, I'm just a big fan of that storage media.

Why? It's just really interesting to see at the enterprise level that it's outperforming and solving a lot of problems we're having with spinning media. It's a very different approach to how you solve your storage problems. I like to say solid state storage, not solid state disk, because a disk implies it's on a regular cable, plug in structure that a disk could be plugged into and this is one alternative. I like skipping that and just going to just one protocol in communication.

SSD appears to be finding great success in enterprise class server systems, but not so much in the PC and laptop market. Why is that?

Hard disks over a certain size are still more economical than solid state storage. You have to pay a premium to have solid state storage, and depending on the way it's architected, it may not be faster in all ways. I have flash in my laptop and it boots up and loads programs much faster than before, but the general operation doesn't seem that much faster. So why would you pay extra when you don't see [the added performance]?

I mean I'd pay extra ... because I like the whole concept of reliability [with flash memory], and I like to be a purist and like to be a little bit in the lead in doing something. I like to have an early jump. So I had this penchant for solid state storage before the fact that it now has a place in enterprise storage. That's what really surprised me, and of course now the whole world is recognising that's a big part of the future of enterprise storage - at least on the first tier.


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