The Growing Dependency on Flash

Arthur Cole
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Like all technologies, Flash storage is neither good nor bad, it just is. That means it can deliver new levels of performance in the data center, but it can also lead to new problems, particularly when deployed incorrectly or for the wrong reasons.

Nevertheless, it appears that Flash is quickly becoming the new normal as the enterprise seeks to up its capabilities in the face of Big Data and social media. To companies like DeepStorage, this move from a tactical solution to a strategic one is necessary as Flash takes on primary storage roles and earlier disk and tape solutions move toward secondary backup and archival functions. Howard Marks, the company’s chief scientist, notes that 80 percent of storage systems being shipped today feature Flash modules along with standard HDDs.

Flash may be growing in popularity, says Alibab’s Wu Peng, but that doesn’t mean it is worry-free. When you start to scale Flash infrastructure, you suddenly become very conscious of things like cost and power consumption, he says. And as it takes on greater responsibility for primary functions, Flash will need to improve both latency and reliability, both of which tend to degrade rather quickly in high-volume production environments. Still, Alibaba has no plans to curtail its Flash consumption, which is estimated at about 1 percent of the total Flash market and is primarily responsible for the company’s record-setting e-commerce performance.

With many cloud operators increasingly turning to Flash, most enterprises will find themselves dependent on the technology whether they will it or not. With everyone from Amazon and Microsoft racing to deploy Flash on their infrastructure and traditional providers like EMC and HP tying new hardware platforms to storage services, enterprise data is all but certain to encounter Flash at some point. And with the rise of user-provisioning and shadow IT, this will happen even if no formal cloud deployment policy is in place.

And we shouldn’t overlook Flash’s role in the other major IT trend of the day: the software-defined data center. As NetApp’s John Martin points out, the flexibility that the SDDC enables is best addressed through Flash and other forms of non-volatile memory (NVM) like Phase-Change Memory (PCM) and Spin-transfer torque random access memory (STT-RAM). These offer the access speed and byte-addressable characteristics of today’s server-side DRAM, but also the persistence and reliability of advanced solid-state technology. In this way, servers can be equipped with multiple TBs of high-speed storage that can be linked using a software-defined network, essentially removing the cost and complexity of today’s shared storage environment.

Of course, this also dovetails nicely with the rise of modular infrastructure that allows for massive scalability in support of the very web-scale architectures that Alibaba’s Peng says provide a unique challenge to Flash storage. But the fact remains that when it comes to high-speed, highly dynamic data environments, Flash is the only commercial solution that can meet enterprise needs going forward. So even though it may have its share of warts, it seems that Flash will remain on the deployment agenda for some time to come.

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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