Flash in the enterprise: don't shed a tier for disk

In this commentary, we contemplate the significance of EMC's adoption of flash drives in its Symmetrix arrays.

Way back in around 1995 or 1996, I received a press release from Quantum, which had released a solid state disk drive. If my memory is reliable, the shoebox-sized contraption offered only a few tens of megabytes of memory. Mid-90s multimedia developers cranking out interactive CD-ROMs or fledgling digital animators were the target market, as both occasionally needed exceptionally rapid access to data.

The device was so exotic that Quantum did not include a price in its press release, but the company eventually offered a nominal price of around $50,000.

I mention this artefact in light of EMC's announcement that it will offer solid-state drives in its Symmetrix disk arrays.

It's an interesting announcement because flash storage is slowly but surely taking over from disk. The evidence starts in the flash-packing iPod Nano, which usurped the disk-powered iPod Mini and made it faster and lighter along the way, setting a trend that has seen portable electronics bulk up their memory capacities to an impressive degree and devices like Micro-SD cards astound by packing gigabytes of storage into tiny slivers.

A few laptops have also started using flash disks. We tested one, the ASUS eeePC, last year and noted no performance difference compared to conventional machines. Apple's Macbook Air, announced today, offers a solid state drive (albeit at massive price premium). Expect plenty more machines with similar equipment this year.

EMC's announcement caps the trend by bringing flash into the enterprise.

But let's not kid ourselves that flash is a replacement for enterprise disk just yet. The drives EMC offers come with a price tag 30 times that of conventional disks, which some predict will reach 4TB by the end of the year for well under $1000. Sure flash is much faster than conventional disk, but there are not many applications that need it... especially at a 3000% price premium.

There are a few, however, that do need this speed. EMC's announcement will excite those users because it creates a new option to insert an extra tier of storage that is faster than anything else around. The prospect of slotting a few solid state drives into an array and using them to store data for which access time is everything is a nice new option that will surely be attractive to some businesses. The fact that the tier in question is today the province of dedicated caching machines will further intrigue, as the chance to reduce storage equipment fleets is seldom lamented.

It's hard not to think, however, that this is an important and welcome but incremental benefit that a few users will appreciate this year... just as only a few really appreciated Quantum's machine back in the mid-90s.

And what of the future? The price of flash will surely continue to fall. Whether it falls below the cost of conventional disk remains to be seen. We expect, however, that flash will be an important tier in storage for a good few years before it becomes the dominant medium, if indeed that ever happens.

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