Solid-state storage finds its niche


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"NOR is too costly and too slow at writing," adds Alan Niebel, founder and CEO, Web-Feet Research Inc., Monterey, CA. It's not considered a viable enterprise storage technology.

The main advantages of flash storage are high performance, reliability, low power consumption and small size. Flash-drive performance is 1,000 times better than hard disk. Flash's sturdiness gives the technology another advantage over HDD. The military is one of the earliest adopters of flash storage for ruggedized PCs used in the field and in military aircraft. "They put it inside the computer in a jet fighter, which vibrates like hell. A hard disk drive can't take that kind of shock," says Jim Handy, director at Objective Analysis, an analyst firm in Los Gatos, CA.

For corporate IT, ruggedization isn't usually an issue, but reliability is. The big appeal of SSD, both flash and DRAM, is extremely high performance. "This is where you have a huge volume of transactions and need fast IO," says Jeff Janukowicz, research manager for hard disk drive components and solid-state disk drives at IDC, Framingham, MA. Of the two, flash delivers somewhat less performance and costs less, but it's still far faster than even the fastest 15K rpm hard disk.

Another appealing aspect of flash storage is its lower power consumption and low heat. "Power, heat and cooling have become huge issues, and flash SSD

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can cut down [on] power usage in the data center," says Niebel. Flash memory has no moving parts and requires negligible amounts--in the area of 10 milliamperes (mA)--of power for reads and writes.

Flash drawbacks
Flash SSD has its drawbacks, beginning with its high price. Flash proponents cite a current price of $10/GB. "In the past, the cost ratio of flash SSD to hard disk was 100:1. That has come down to 40:1 and will drop even further," says Niebel. But the $10/GB price is deceiving, as it's the raw cost of low-quality flash chips to the OEM. IT organizations will likely want higher quality flash systems delivered by OEMs, and these systems currently run about $60/GB or more. The question is how much of a premium IT managers are willing to pay for the advantages of flash storage. If only a few gigabytes are needed for an extremely high-performance cache, they might be able to justify the premium, as ISE did.

Related to its high price is the limited capacity flash SSD systems offer. Most systems are configured for 16GB, 32GB, maybe even 64GB, although STEC Inc., a Santa Ana, CA-based SSD system vendor, offers flash storage up to 256GB. "Price is an issue in the enterprise. If you need large capacity, a hard drive is way cheaper," says iSuppli's Chander.


This was first published in November 2007

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