Flash in the Enterprise: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Arthur Cole

The debate is still swirling around how best to integrate solid-state disks (SSDs) and Flash storage into enterprise infrastructure.


Most issues center on the old cost/benefit ratio, complicated by the fact that solid state is more expensive but provides lower operating costs. Selecting the right disk drives for replacement, then, becomes a crucial matter, as does the means to integrate the new drives into the overall storage heirarchy.


But there is one application that seems to be catching on fairly quickly: replacing server hard drives with solid state. Those who have gone this route say the benefits are two-fold. With the clunky hard drive gone, you now have the ability to pack servers into ever denser configurations, plus you now have lightning-fast storage response that can actually keep up with the server's processing capability.


The latest group to see the light is MySpace, which recently signed on with Fusion-io to swap out its server-mounted hard drives with PCIe-based Flash cards across its entire infrastructure. The move lets MySpace replace its 2 U servers with 1 U machines, replacing perhaps 12 15k Fibre Channel drives with a single ioDrive system.


Each card can provide up to 320 GB of storage, although Fusion-io does make a 640 GB version and is close to releasing a 1.28 TB device in a few months. A single ioDrive delivers 1.5 Gbps, although they can be pooled in groups of four to provide a top rate of 6 Gbps and more than 500,000 read IOPS.


But the biggest benefit is operational. MySpace says power and cooling costs are only about 1 percent of the hard drive infrastructure, which they estimate will generate a savings of about $120,000 per year in energy costs.


It's those kinds of numbers that are drawing some of the top server vendors toward solid state technology. HP recently started offering Samsung 60 and 120 GB SSDs on the ProLiant G5. The drives are significantly more expensive than traditional HDDs, but can process data some 50 times faster and use only a fraction of the energy. IBM also offers optional SSDs on its Power6 models.


The server isn't the only place where we're likely to see more Flash storage, and not necessarily for the better, according to Chris Mellor at the Register. He argues that Flash modules are likely to start appearing not only on server motherboards and PCI busses, but also on the I/O adapter, the contoller and even the storage array itself. But to avoid potential imbalances between server, network and storage data processing capabilities, we'll either need a fully integrated network infrastructure from someone like Cisco or IBM, or a pretty savvy VAR with some as-yet-to-be-invented tools to ensure a level IOPS playing field.


Potential integration issues aside, however, the fact is that Flash, and solid state in general, is likely to have a big impact on enterprise operations, simply because the costs, while still high, are dropping at a much faster rate than traditional spinning media. Price parity may still be a ways off, but even if SSDs remain on the high side in terms of acquisition costs, their operational benefits are too good to ignore.



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