Will Solid State Drives Go Beyond Enterprise?

Solid state disk (SSD) drives currently cost as much as 30 times more than Fibre Channel drives, but the return is impressive. The high cost has kept SSDs primarily tied to high-end enterprises that can afford such pricey performance.

But given that prices for SSDs are dropping rapidly, the drives may become more ubiquitous than in enterprise. Research firm IDC reports that cost is decreasing by as much as 40 to 50 percent annually, and industry insiders and vendors predict SSDs will be saturating storage systems as early as next year.

“The popularity really hinges on cost,” Charles King, an analyst at research firm Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. “Prices are dropping significantly to the point where they will become options in midrange storage systems,” King said, noting EMC’s Clariion CX4 systems announced a few weeks back were the first midrange storage solutions to support SSD.

The data read time is 10 times greater, which can be a huge differentiator when it comes to transaction-processing applications. Processing credit card or trade transactions faster means more money coming in.

EMC (NYSE: EMC) is the biggest SSD champion at this point. Its Clariion news marked its second big SSD foray. The first was the news earlier this year when it integrated SSDs into its high-end Symmetrix DMX-4 storage systems.

Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ: JAVA)
followed quickly behind, brashly predicting every device it will ship will have the flash technology by the end of 2010. Such big name support illustrates why SSD, which uses memory chips instead of rotating platters for data storage, could drive one of the biggest storage changes in decades.

In a recent report, IDC stated that “SSD adoption will be measured and deliberate, focusing first on market segments that can tolerate the additional premium associated with SSDs,” referring to today’s cost factor.

“One of its big advantages is that it gives increased performance,” Jeff Janukowicz, an IDC analyst covering solid state disk drives, told InternetNews.com.

For example SSD can reduce data access time from 20 milliseconds on hard disks to about 0.5 milliseconds, an accomplishment Janukowicz termed “significant.”

“It also offers high reliability due to its physical nature and is more energy efficient as it requires less power,” Janukowicz said.

Those attributes have most SSD OEMs busy right now integrating and testing the technology. “Companies have been using hard disks for decades, and SSD is relatively new so enterprises will have to learn about where they best fit in,” Janukowicz said.

The best fit is where high performance, high capacity and fast disk read times are needed. SSD isn’t a technology that every enterprise needs or one that can fulfill all storage requirements, experts point out.

“At this point, SSD products are largely aimed at enterprises looking to maximize performance of large databases and other IT assets that benefit from enhanced response times,” King explained. “It is a specialized solution to specific kinds of problems.”

Yet that specialty aspect won’t preclude good adoption rates thanks to emerging storage environments such as Web 2.0 platforms, which need the same high-end storage systems built in legacy customers bases such as the financial and government sectors.

“The technology is already going beyond the commerce and trade transaction worlds,” Patrick Wilkison, vice president of business development at SSD manufacturer STEC, told InternetNews.com. STEC supplies the drives used by EMC in its high-end Symmetrix and midrange Clariion arrays.

“It’s a certain technology that can do certain things and is proliferating behind where it’s been the past few years,” he said. As price drops, more companies will understand its value as a cost-effective storage option, Wilkison added.

STEC expects all major storage arrays will support SSDs by April 2009. “Consider that our flash-based SSD line just came online in early 2007, and OEMS are already pulling it in,” Wilkison said. The technology, he added, requires a great deal of qualification effort by storage vendors.

“EMC had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into SSD and has called it a new permanent tier of storage that is not going away,” Wilkison said.

Market success, he said, will be tied to making sure the technology provides customers with needed benefits. That means vendors will likely have to help educate storage leaders on where it best fits.

“It has to be an application-centric approach, and organizations have to ask what problem can they solve using this drive,” Wilkison said. His statement was echoed by analysts.

“The biggest issue is how to help customers understand when and where SSD solutions are ideally applied,” said King.

“You’d think that would be fairly clear, but often the enthusiasm for a new technology overwhelms best practice considerations. While SSD offers significant benefits over HDD technologies, businesses need to clearly understand what those benefits are and how they can be captured.”

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