Solid-state goes mainstream

If a tech is judged by the products that crop up around it and the techs it spawns, then it’s hard to argue that solid-state storage hasn’t reached a certain level of maturity.

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If a tech is judged by the products that crop up around it and the techs it spawns, then it’s hard to argue that solid-state storage hasn’t reached a certain level of maturity.

There’s a great scene in Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story where Ralph and his buddies convince Flick to lick a metal flagpole on a cold, snowy day to disprove the old tale that a wet tongue will stick to cold metal. Of course, they end up proving that it’s actually true and Flick gets stuck to the flagpole, fire department racing to the scene.

Being the first to do something, or succumbing to the dares of others and taking the first steps, can be pretty scary -- and the results can be unpredictable. But in the world of IT you do have a choice: You can play it safe and keep buying “traditional” technology from well-established vendors, or you can take a chance on a startup or some new-fangled technology.

Solid-state storage was like that ice-cold flagpole, with lots of people looking at it and talking about it but not so many ready to make the leap. It’s new stuff, and data storage shops tend to take their sweet time warming up to new technologies. Solid-state’s speed and conservative power requirements are interesting enough, but it’s really different, and the economics surrounding the technology aren’t familiar to most of us. That last part means it costs a heckuva lot more than anything else we store data on.

Using traditional measurements, like unit sales and revenue, you’d have to say that solid-state storage is barely moving the meter in the overall enterprise storage picture. But there are other signs to consider. I think you can tell if a product is maturing, or at least positioning itself to grab a significant chunk of market share, by the context it has created and if an ecosystem of related products is beginning to take shape around the technology.

It’s a lot like the aftermarket that’s feeding off the cell phone industry, with scores of vendors selling protective cases, ring tones, skins, holders, straps and so on. When a core technology has enough impact to pull all that other stuff along with it, there’s no denying it has arrived.

That’s exactly what’s happening with solid-state storage now. Not too long ago, the solid-state story was about a handful of vendors trying to jigger consumer technology to meet enterprise requirements. Today, based on the number of press releases I receive, there are approximately 8 billion solid-state storage companies with cool new products. (I’m exaggerating; it’s probably only 4 billion.) But with the proliferation of new products and an emerging solid-state ecosystem, the focus has shifted. We’re finding ourselves less hung up on specs and inner workings and more interested in applications.

Mind you, it’s fine to want to know basic specs and to understand how they might affect performance in your environment, but do you need to know all the gory details? With hard disks, it’s enough to know stats like capacity, interface and rotational speed. Do you truly need to understand how perpendicular magnetic recording technology works? It just works, and it means areal density is increasing at an absurd rate. Ditto for solid-state.

There’s plenty of evidence to support my contention that solid-state storage has come of age. Just look at the products themselves. We tend to call them solid-state drives, but they’ve evolved well beyond mere plug-in replacements for hard disks -- a stopgap implementation at best. The implementation options are abundant and more varied than those for hard disks; solid-state can be used as persistent storage in servers or arrays, and as a performance super-booster in a variety of cache deployments.

The solid-state ecosystem isn’t just getting more diverse, the applications are also getting more impressive. I was recently briefed on a software product that helps speed up solid-state storage in application environments; kind of an app that makes flash flashier. And a number of hardware vendors are pushing their solid-state storage systems in the direction of cloud storage service providers. That’s wild when you consider that cloud storage services mostly failed about 15 years ago because they relied on storage infrastructures that were too expensive to support a subscription model. Today’s answer to that is to try some of the most expensive storage on earth instead. But it’s a whole new world.

The applications for solid-state just keep coming. It’s almost unheard of at even this early stage to consider implementing virtual desktops without using some solid-state storage to quell the boot storms. But solid-state isn’t just an infrastructure solution; DBAs are drooling over the pumped-up performance that solid-state storage promises for database applications.

So, with an emerging aftermarket, you have to think that solid-state storage has really arrived. Yes, it still costs a fortune, but that’s one of the old parameters you’ll just have to leave behind.

BIO: Rich Castagna is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

* Click here for a sneak peek at what’s coming up in the November 2011 issue.

This was first published in October 2011

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