Lower Cost Flash Available for the Enterprise, but Is that Enough?

Arthur Cole
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Storage vs. Backup: What Your Business Needs to Know

All things being equal otherwise, not many people would choose slower, more cumbersome storage over faster, denser solutions.

In technology circles, however, things rarely are equal—especially on cost—which is why disk drives remain the most common form of storage in the enterprise.

For example, the great differentiator between Flash and disk so far has been cost. The premium price that Flash requires makes it truly effective only for applications that live and die by their response times. Everything else—including the vast majority of bulk data and back-office enterprise productivity applications—functions perfectly well on lower-cost disk arrays.

But what if the cost variance between the two solutions were to vanish? Would that finally push the disk drive into obsolescence? Perhaps not completely, but it would certainly go a long way toward expanding the use of Flash for more run-of-the-mill processes.

Dell is taking fresh aim at the high cost of Flash with a new storage array featuring triple-level cell (TLC) or so-called 3D NAND technology that the company says brings the price-performance differential with disk arrays closer in line than ever. The new SC Series array can be had for as low as $1.66 per raw GB, which puts it on par with a 15k hard drive solution even while it delivers a 24-fold performance boost and a 6x density improvement. The system is built on TLC drives from Samsung and can be configured for up to 45TB per rack.

Expect the cost of both Flash and disk to continue to fall rapidly, says Infostor’s Paul Rubens, although for different reasons. Hard disks will benefit from advances in gas-filled housing and write technologies like shingled magnetic recording (SMR) and heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), while Flash will see additional developments in cell storage techniques as well as new processor and software capabilities in the controller. This bodes well for the enterprise as it moves toward the era of Big Data and the Internet of Things in which the diversity of data, and thus the requirements to store it, increases.

But cost alone is not the sole basis on which to build a storage solution. Flexibility and functionality are important as well. Nimble Storage is pairing its solid-state portfolio with the Adaptive Flash platform that dynamically assigns data to various tiers based on service-level requirements and other parameters. The system supports all-Flash, mixed media and disk-only service within a single storage environment and has recently been updated with software-based encryption and a REST-based extensible framework for improved scalability and performance. As well, the platform incorporates granular VM monitoring and integrated data protection.

Flash Storage

And even though Flash is considered to be the cutting-edge of storage today, researchers are already hard at work on its replacement. Intel and Micron recently announced a new class of memory that is said to be 1,000 times faster and more durable than NAND Flash and capable of 10 times the density, according to Forbes’ Antony Leather. Called 3D XPoint, the solution scraps the phase-change approach of standard memory in favor of a property-change storage mechanism that leverages the binary change in the resistance of materials as they move from high to low resistance. The solution can also write data at the bit-level, which potentially eliminates the need for garbage collection on an SSD and even the transistors within individual memory cells.

Enterprise storage has the dubious distinction of being the most basic and yet the most complex function in the data center. Virtualization of processor and network infrastructure, although difficult to implement, is a fairly straightforward development path. Storage, on the other hand, is still steeped in a range of technological, architectural and operational trade-offs, with the optimal solution for one application failing utterly to satisfy the needs of another.

Flash and disk will continue to duke it out for dominance in the enterprise, but the real challenge going forward will be in devising an effective means for data to negotiate multiple storage options on its own.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

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