Most of us in technology were just starting to get used to the idea that flash drives would start ramping slowly, because they are so expensive, into the desktop market this year. We believed any move into the data center was a long way off.
Then came news that EMC is integrating flash-based solid-state drives into its core enterprise portfolio. I was blindsided by a move I considered a decade down the road.
I'm not sure many truly realize what a massive change this potentially means, but it seemed to add up to a really positive week for EMC.
Flash Drives: What Is Taking So Long?
We started talking about flash taking magnetic media out more than a decade ago. It's been surprising how fast magnetic media has advanced in technology and dropped in price. As a result, it held on much longer than anyone expected. But the belief remained that solid-state drives eventually would take over. We just moved out the timeline.
We certainly saw flash creep into areas where CDs once dominated, and currently some of the most desirable MP3 music players are flash-based. They replaced floppy drives several years earlier as a good way to move files from place to place, and now flash drives appear to be used more often than CDs for that purpose.
Last year, we saw the first 32- and 64-gigabyte drives come to market. But they either used an outdated drive interface, which bottlenecked the product, or had controller problems, which caused the drives to fail, according to the PC OEMs.
This was being worked on, but products that provided the performance we'd been promised were still on hold for the desktop, and no one was looking at the back office.
Benefits and Liabilities of Flash Drives
Flash drives have a number of core benefits. They are solid state, so they don't have the inherent mechanical hardware exposures enjoyed by rotating media; they use much less power; they can survive a lot of abuse; they generate far less heat; and they have blinding speed when compared to traditional magnetic media.
This obviously made them an ideal choice for notebook computers, and both Toshiba and Dell provided early notebook products that used them. Apple is expected to announce similar offerings shortly. However, we tended to miss that many of these same advantages would benefit data centers -- particularly the low-heat, high-performance part.
There are two big problems with the flash drives: They wear out, and they are way too expensive. Evidently, though, engineers have figured out how to design around these limitations. Longevity isn't the problem it once was, and the cost for these products seems to be dropping 50 percent a year, making them vastly more affordable. They remain too expensive for most, but where money isn't so much an issue, as is enterprises where speed can make $100 million of difference, these things suddenly are attracting a lot of interest.
The EMC/STEC Announcement
EMC and STEC announced the ultimate solid-state drive for data centers. Working together, they packaged hardware and management software needed to make efficient use of this otherwise expensive resource. This appears to be a complete solution, not just a drive, connected to EMC's high-end, high-performance, Symmetrix platform.
It would take an estimated 30 15,000 RPM Fibre Channel drives to equal the same performance as one of these drives, which only consume 2 percent of the power that the 30-drive solution would require.
Targeted at applications such as trading floor, banking and military, the performance advantages coupled with a heat and power benefit, rather than the normal penalty, should prove attractive. This last might be just as critical as the performance boost because data centers often operate right at thermal limits. Getting something that generates less heat than the equipment it replaces could prevent an expensive cooling-system retrofit, which can cost millions.
This means flash has truly arrived. Now the clock can start with regard to the replacement of hard drives by solid-state drives. While this may take a decade or more, it should start to peak in five years as advancements in solid-state technology are occurring faster than with magnetic media, and magnetic media is starting to lose entire markets. While optical is likely to go first, magnetic media will soon follow, and by 2020, both should be mostly memories.
By then, we'll probably know what comes after solid-state drives, but some of us will be able to look back to this week and say that this was when the market truly started to move to solid-state media. 2008 is the first truly revolutionary year for large-scale solid-state storage.