Seeing the Storage Forest Through the Flash Trees

    Too often, the narrative surrounding flash and disk drives in the enterprise veers toward the combative — as if flash drive manufacturers are out for nothing less than complete domination of the professional storage market.

    It seems clear, though, that the vast majority of data centers will continue to use a variety of storage technologies and platforms in an effort to more closely match increasingly varied data loads with underlying physical infrastructure. Even the vaunted “all-flash data center” that I highlighted last month will most likely cater to specialty data services that require high throughput and support for extremely dynamic data patterns.

    Make no mistake, flash will certainly make its presence known in traditional infrastructure, and that will extend to more than just raw speed, says Tintri’s Ed Lee. The more virtualized the enterprise becomes, the more it has to deal with highly random I/O requirements. To date, most enterprises have been meeting that challenge by adding advanced controllers and other expensive upgrades. Flash eliminates the contention for storage resources that increases latency, but it works best in systems that are purpose-built for flash from the ground up. In this way, you get not only flash throughput, but a fully optimized storage environment.

    To ensure that your flash environment is giving you all it can, take a close look at the software it uses, says Skyera CEO Radoslav Danilak. Too many component vendors use third-party software that is usually designed for disk-based systems. A more vertically integrated solution, like Skyera’s Skyhawk, can provide not only improved performance but lower TCO and longer lifecycles because it is tailor-made for the vagaries of flash storage. The company says it can provide all the leading management functions, such as LUN mapping, cloning and snapshots while cutting CPU usage and alleviating memory access issues that hamper performance.

    Note, however, that disk drive technology is not standing still either. Western Digital is currently experimenting with helium-filled devices that are said to reduce power consumption and increase capacity by significantly reducing internal friction. And since nearly all data becomes less urgent over time, it will eventually find its way off of high I/O platforms and into low-cost bulk storage tiers.

    And just because flash is the newest kid on the block doesn’t mean it will hold that position forever. STEC, for one, is looking at advanced technologies like MRAM (Magneto-resistive RAM), which is said to be faster and more durable than flash, and is even bit-addressable. With MRAM as a cache, future storage devices would see greatly improved write optimization and much higher capacities, although the cost will likely be on the high side.

    Flash will prove extremely helpful as the enterprise confronts the cloud, Big Data, mobility and all the other forces shaping modern data environments. But it is not a magic bullet.

    At best, it can be one of the strongest links in an optimized storage chain. IT’s job going forward will be to address the weakest links.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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