With the rise of affordable Flash memory options in the datacenter, the fundamental economics of storage are rapidly transforming.
Rather than relying solely on hard disk drives that are challenging to manage, many IT organizations are making a rapid transition to solid state disk (SSD) technology. While still more expensive than hard disk drives, SSD has come down in price when combined with a raft of additional benefits, making SSDs too compelling to ignore.
The first major benefit is that IT organizations can use smaller, more energy-efficient processors in their servers because SSDs eliminate a lot of latency. This not only reduces the cost of the servers, it saves energy and reduces footprints. Just as importantly, fewer servers usually results in lower application licensing fees, because most software licensing schemes are based on the number of servers employed.
Add to that the fact that SSDs are less likely to have mechanical problems resulting in the need for fewer spares and lower maintenance costs, and they become a pretty compelling alternative to magnetics disks.
"Like most things in IT you need to follow the money," James Baker, senior contributing analyst with The Clipper Group, an IT consulting firm, told me. "You need to take a more holistic approach to assessing costs."
Beyond hardware issues, SSDs make life a lot easier for developers. Rather than trying to optimize the placement of data on magnetic spinning disks, developers can write applications without having to worry about any constraints relating to data latency. That might allow them to develop applications that were never before possible, and at the very least the environment becomes a lot more forgiving of the quality of the code being run.
While well-known providers of hard disk drives such as Seagate have been aggressively investing in Flash memory technologies, Scott Horn, vice president of marketing at Seagate, says it would be shortsighted to completely write off high performance disk drives any time soon.
Not only will hard disk drive pricing continue to fall, Horn says Flash memory pricing is about as low as it's going to go for the foreseeable future because the industry is starting to reach some capacity constraints.
Horn predicts that not only will we soon see shortages of Flash memory, the cost of hard disk shortage systems will fall given advances such as new 5 millimeter technology and the fact that storage system vendors have a lot of leeway in terms of the margins they have historically enjoyed.
"Flash memory pricing may even go up with Flash memory increasing goes on allocation," says Horn.
It's too early to say with absolute certainty that Flash memory will completely replace high performance magnetic systems in the enterprise. But it is clear that so-called "hot data" associated with mission-critical applications is moving that way. Cold data, meanwhile, will increasing wind up on inexpensive SAS drives. What's not clear is where all the "warm data" that resides between those two extremes will ultimately wind up, which is why storage vendors are introducing more sophisticated automated tiering systems.
Dell, for example, just introduced the Dell Compellent Flash Optimized Solution, which supports automated tiering across hard drives and two classes of SSDs.
According to Bob Fine, product director for Dell Storage, the Dell Compellent Flash Optimized Solution is the only system that not only tiers data across SSD and hard disk drives, it will tier data across different classes of SSDs. That means the system will automatically tier write data on single-level cell (SLC) class SSDs, while using less expensive multi-level cell (MLC) class SSDs for read-only data.
Fine says that when it comes to automated tiering of data, the Dell Compellent Flash Optimized Solution is the only instance of that kind of storage management tool that imposes no restrictions in terms of where data can be placed in the system.
"When it comes to putting the right data at the right place at the right time we excel," says Fine.
Of course, taking advantage of those kinds of systems will require IT organizations to acquire new storage systems. But when you think about all the time and effort administrators now go through to manually optimize the placement of data, it's a relatively small price to pay to free someone up to add more value elsewhere inside the IT organization.