Understanding the Value of Flash

With dramatic performance and capacity gains, flash storage delivers a lot of bang for the buck.

Flash storage has made significant inroads into the data center in recent years, as more organizations seek to tap the performance advantages of flash to support their most demanding workloads. In a recent survey by 451 Research, almost 90 percent of organizations said they have some sort of flash-based storage installed in their data centers.

Flash is most commonly deployed as a high-performance tier in a hybrid array that also leverages traditional hard-disk drives (HDDs). Just over half (51 percent) or organizations said they have hybrid arrays in use today, with another 29 percent planning to deploy a hybrid array within the next two years.

All-flash storage systems are becoming the norm for supporting high-transaction-rate applications, however, and organizations are adopting all-flash arrays at a rapid rate. More than a quarter (27 percent) of enterprises have deployed all-flash arrays already, and a further 28 percent are planning deployment within the next two years. Cost was highlighted as the greatest barrier to broader adoption, with 51 percent of survey respondents saying all-flash arrays are too expensive.

“Organizations of all sizes are looking to transform their storage infrastructures to drive both improved performance and efficiency, and flash-based approaches are at the heart of this transformation,” said Simon Robinson, Research Vice President at 451. ““While all-flash approaches have gained substantial momentum in recent years and will continue to grow in popularity, it’s also clear that many prospective buyers still view these solutions as cost-prohibitive.”

Despite concerns about cost, a sizable minority of organizations — 19 percent — have already replaced HDDs with flash in their storage-area networks, or plan to do so over the next two years. These organizations recognize that you must look beyond the cost-per-gigabyte of flash to understand its value.


Maximum Performance

The first HDD was introduced by IBM in 1956, and the basic technology behind it hasn’t changed that much in the ensuing 60 years. A read/write arm moves across a spinning platter of magnetized material, storing bits of data in concentric circular tracks. Because HDDs are mechanical, data access times are limited by the speed of the spinning platter and the time it takes the read/write arm to move into position. The fastest HDDs have access times equal to about 5 milliseconds, according to most studies.

Flash drives are electronic, storing data in nonvolatile NAND flash memory. Data access times come down to as little as 20 microseconds, making flash drives 250 times faster than HDDs. They are also smaller and more durable because there are no moving parts, and they consume a small fraction of the power.

Enterprise storage arrays incorporating flash storage were first introduced in early 2008. At that time flash was so expensive that it could be justified for only the highest-priority workloads. Since then, prices for flash storage have dropped due to improvements in NAND flash memory.

Furthermore, vendors have added data-optimization techniques such as de-duplication and compression to their flash storage arrays, dramatically increasing capacity. In the 451 Research survey, 59 percent of respondents said they gained between 2x and 5x space savings from using these technologies, effectively cutting the cost-per-gigabyte of flash by 50 percent to 80 percent.

Organizations see immediate benefits from flash when it is applied to I/O-intensive applications, particularly those that experience spikes in demand. That’s why flash storage is frequently used for desktop virtualization. It delivers the performance needed to accommodate the “boot storms” that occur when hundreds or thousands of users log into their virtual desktops.

Reduced TCO

The performance improvements afforded by flash can have a real effect on productivity and the user experience. In addition, flash has the horsepower to support analytics applications that process huge volumes of data, enabling organizations to gain insights that improve decision-making and increase competitiveness.

Flash storage can also reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the storage environment. Many organizations find that all-flash arrays give them enough performance and capacity to consolidate workloads — the 451 Research survey found that 75 percent of all-flash array deployments support multiple applications. This enables organizations to reduce the number of storage arrays that must be purchased and managed, as well as the amount of power and space consumed in the data center.

The introduction of 3-D NAND technology is bringing significant increases in the density of flash storage, surpassing that of HDDs. While most manufacturers are producing 3-D NAND for consumer devices, enterprise flash storage featuring 3-D NAND is on the horizon.

According to IDC, the overall enterprise storage market decreased .5 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2017, while the all-flash array market saw a 75.7 percent increase. All-flash arrays now represent more than 15 percent of the total enterprise storage market, while hybrid flash arrays have a 22 percent market share.

“The enterprise storage market closed out the first quarter relatively flat, yet adhered to a familiar pattern,” said Liz Conner, IDC research manager, Storage Systems. “Spending on traditional external arrays continues to slowly shrink while spending on all-flash deployments once again posted strong growth and helped to drive the overall market.”

Growing use of big data analytics, virtual desktop infrastructure and other demanding applications are driving adoption of flash storage. While flash remains more expensive than traditional HDDs, the dramatic performance gains afforded by flash are bringing the technology into the mainstream.