Solid-state storage proving its worth among users

More than one-third of total respondents to a recent ESG survey said their organizations are leveraging solid-state storage in some form today.

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More than one-third of total respondents to a recent ESG survey said their organizations are leveraging solid-state storage in some form today.

Based on a recent Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) survey on solid-state storage adoption trends among 223 IT professionals, there’s no escaping the conclusion that solid-state storage -- once viewed with skepticism due to price and performance tradeoffs -- is becoming a mainstream part of enterprise storage environments. Survey participants represented enterprise-class organizations (1,000 employees or more) in North America. For the purposes of this survey, “solid-state storage” was defined as storage that uses solid-state memory (most frequently in the form of various types of flash memory, but can also include DRAM) to store data. That means it resides in a storage system (in the form of a solid-state drive or SSD), in a storage controller, in a server or in a standalone appliance. However, for the purposes of this survey, solid-state storage didn’t include solid-state drives for desktop or laptop PCs, or portable flash storage devices, such as USB drives.

Solid-state trends

To understand the relevance of the study, it’s important to note that it showed solid-state storage usage, not just awareness, is increasing. More than one-third of total respondents indicated their organizations are leveraging solid-state storage in some form today. In addition, 17% have plans to deploy the technology within the next 12 months, while another 18% are in the evaluation phase. Given the pervasive media coverage of flash drive technology -- whether pertaining to enterprise IT systems or endpoint devices like laptops -- it’s not surprising that only 2% of respondents said they’re not familiar with solid-state storage.

While there are a number of ways to leverage flash memory to accelerate performance, SSDs are the most common type of solid-state storage implementation. Because the latest wave of solid-state usage started with enterprise data storage vendors shipping external disk storage subsystems with solid-state drives, it’s not surprising that nearly half of current users leverage this option today. Likewise, almost 50% of potential adopters expect to use solid-state drives in an external disk storage subsystem within the next 12 months to 18 months. Looking ahead, standalone solid-state storage appliances -- whether serving as primary storage or a cache -- appear poised to make the most significant gains over the next 18 months in terms of market adoption among both current users and potential adopters.

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Performance is still viewed as the biggest solid-state storage adoption driver, but reliability is also being recognized as a chief benefit. Improved performance is the most recognized advantage solid-state storage provides over traditional mechanical drives; however, as recently as a few years ago, there was considerable negative press about solid-state longevity and duty cycles, so many viewed this as a potential solid-state concern. Because hard disk drives (HDDs) have moving components, solid-state storage is typically more reliable, which many current users have witnessed firsthand. Improved reliability/mean time between failures (MTBF) is another important attribute to potential adopters, suggesting these organizations are looking for long-term value out of their solid-state storage investments.

ESG found that solid-state is often purchased in association with particular applications and/or workloads, but there’s a shift toward broader usage. Nearly two-thirds of current solid-state storage users report their organizations purchased the technology to alleviate performance challenges associated with a specific application. Conversely, more than half of potential solid-state storage adopters don’t believe their organizations will deploy the technology as a means to address specific application performance challenges. In addition, current users were more than two times as likely as potential adopters to single out I/O bottlenecks caused by server virtualization as the primary reason for initial solid-state storage adoption. These two points highlight solid-state storage technology’s shift toward broader/more horizontal applicability.

There’s a tight link between the use of solid-state storage and automated tiering. Automated storage tiering supports the concept of aligning more in-demand data with a higher performing storage tier, such as solid-state. It makes sense that a significant number of organizations, both current users and potential adopters of solid-state storage, have seen tiering serve as a catalyst for solid-state storage adoption. Conversely, nearly one-third of current solid-state storage users report the technology drove their initial deployment of automated tiered storage.

Pricing concerns

Lofty pricing is a stigma attached to solid-state storage and a deterrent to adoption in some cases, according to the survey. However, there’s potentially good news to be gleaned from the fact that current users are significantly less likely to identify cost as a challenge. This suggests that many in this population are deriving value from the actual deployment of solid-state storage. Because solid-state storage still carries a significant price premium, there’s additional pressure on IT decision-makers to ensure a satisfactory return on these investments. As such, it makes sense that a majority of both current users and planned adopters of solid-state storage view the brand of the actual components as either critical or very important in their purchase decisions. Most current users and potential adopters also reported that components vendors and system vendors have equal sway over solid-state decisions.

Although prices have been declining steadily, solid-state storage is still expensive relative to HDDs. It follows, then, that more than half of organizations with no interest in solid-state storage point to its cost relative to HDDs as an impediment to adoption. The other significant barrier to solid-state storage implementation is the feeling that the technology is still relatively immature at this point -- not an uncommon sentiment toward new and leading-edge IT solutions.

The bigger truth

Given that just about every storage vendor is actively promoting the benefits of solid-state, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the technology will continue to ramp up over the next couple of years. Considering the large number of emerging startups, the choices for IT organizations will be plentiful. Indeed, as user knowledge of solid-state capabilities improves, and the functional and financial value of vendor offerings increases, broad adoption of solid-state looks inevitable.

Solid-state won’t replace hard disk drives; HDDs will continue to dominate the bulk capacity and revenue number. Instead, a relatively small amount of solid-state will be standard practice in most environments. And it’s likely to be less connected to specific applications, at least from a purchase decision perspective, and more likely to be employed more as a horizontal infrastructure “turbo boost” powered by caching or automated tiering software. This means the percentage of I/O handled by solid-state will far outstrip its share of the storage dollar spend or total installed disk-based storage capacity. This may change years from now as more advanced foundational solid-state technologies emerge. But for the moment, solid-state looks set to become a small but valuable play in capacity terms, but a huge I/O play in the storage game.

BIO: Terri McClure is a senior storage analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

This was first published in January 2012

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