Flash storage second wave to hit in 2014

2013 saw flash storage hit the mainstream with suppliers racing to get a toe in the water. But, 2014 will see the second wave, with products competing to add advanced features

Solid state disk or flash storage has been around for some time now. But, with a marked uptick in activity, 2013 saw the arrival of flash as a mainstream technology, accessible to more businesses than ever.

Looking back over the last 12 months we saw lots of flash storage product activity, market flotations, acquisitions and legal wrangling.

EMC finally got XtremIO to general availability 18 months after the company acquired it in May 2012 for a rumoured $430m.

Meanwhile, Violin Memory and Nimble Storage both floated on the stock market with mixed results. Violin’s share price dropped to almost a third of the flotation figure on poor results, leading to the sacking of its CEO. Nimble on the other hand (who use flash as an accelerator to disk) has seen its share price rise significantly since the opening day of trading.

In summer 2013, HP released an all-flash version of its 3PAR arrays under the name 7450 and subsequently revised the code in December 2013 to boost IOPS by 63%. Meanwhile, Dell released the all-flash SC220 array based on the Compellent platform.

Both of these array makers have followed HitachiData Systems’ (HDS) lead and used existing storage platforms as the basis for their flash products.

NetApp released its first flash array, the EF540, based on its Engenio acquisition, ahead of the custom-built FlashRay, expected in 2014.

There were multiple acquisitions in the flash space. Western Digital was the most aggressive, acquiring STEC, Virident and Velobit to add flash hardware and software to its portfolio. Violin acquired GridIron systems to provide customers a way to measure the value of flash on existing disk arrays and create a flash “on-ramp”. Fusion-io acquired Nexgen and used this technology to develop its hybrid ioControl array, mixing disk and PCIe SSD storage. Finally Whpitail, an all-flash startup, was acquired by Cisco.

We also shouldn’t forget that more money poured into the flash market. Pure Storage announced an additional funding round of $150m and its intention to take on EMC. This generated a lawsuit between the two companies; with EMC claiming Pure had poached staff and confidential information.

And, of course, back in the spring of 2013 IBM announced it would invest $1 billion in flash technology over the next three years.

Flash storage market matures

All the activity around flash storage in 2013 points to a maturing market with the first wave of flash deployments being all about bringing the technology to market to fit specific use-cases or application issues.

The second wave will see the technology maturing, with customers focused on features and functionality, including data de-duplication, replication and scale-out capabilities.

For those suppliers (such as HDS, HP and Dell) whose products integrate with existing ecosystems, the adoption curve for customers is much easier, making it less likely they will look elsewhere to deliver its storage performance improvements.

MLC technology has now ousted SLC as the primary flash technology of choice

Products from the two traditional disk array market leaders (EMC and NetApp) are still a work in progress; EMC needs to add new features to XtremIO while NetApp must deliver FlashRay quickly or risk being outpaced by the competition.

Acquisition and failure

With maturity comes consolidation. Whiptail was the first all-flash startup to be acquired and it will be interesting to see how Cisco integrates this technology into its converged systems products, which is surely where the technology is heading.

For others the road ahead looks a little more uncertain. Violin Memory, once the market pioneer, looks prime for acquisition. Even with a share price premium, it could be snapped up for less than EMC paid for XtremIO. The question is, who would want to do that, now all the big vendors have their own platforms? Perhaps NetApp might be interested in acquiring technology to add to its FlashRay project.

In a competitive market that still leaves Pure Storage, Kaminario, Nimbus Data, Skyera and Solidfire, all looking to go to IPO and turn a profit. Will the market have room or all these players? Some will surely fail, or be acquired.

Flash storage futures

Looking forward in the flash storage arena, what else can we expect, technology-wise?

MLC technology has now ousted SLC as the primary flash technology of choice and now around the corner we see new storage media that will exceed the performance of today’s NAND flash devices.

Meanwhile, the NVM Express working group is working on bringing standards to PCIe flash, which should help the adoption of this technology.

Whatever happens, 2014 isn’t going to be a quiet year for flash as the technology becomes more mainstream and spinning disk hard drive technology starts to move quietly into the background.

Read more on SAN, NAS, solid state, RAID