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Solid-state storage not just a flash in the pan

Solid-state disk (SSD) has long been considered well-suited for accelerating performance for applications with high-transaction requirements, but it's still largely thought of as a niche solution due to its hefty price tag and capacity limits (traditionally topping out at 128GB). But new SSD products with terabyte-level capacities and lower prices could eventually give hard drive disk systems a run for their money.

Several SSD vendors have announced new flash memory products this year, most notably Texas Memory Systems (TMS), which in September announced its RamSan-500 system. Targeting high-end enterprise applications and designed to compete with traditional hard disk RAID systems, the RamSan-500 uses flash memory for primary storage media (as much as 2TB), while DDR memory is used as cache in a manner similar to traditional arrays offered by the likes of EMC and Hitachi Data Systems. Until now, a RamSan-400 cost approximately $90,000 for a base unit with 128GB of RAM--more than $700 per gigabyte. A RamSan-500 in a 2TB configuration, however, can be purchased for less than $300,000, which is $150 per gigabyte.

The TMS product announcement comes on the heels of a flurry of SSD announcements made by several storage vendors last summer. LSI announced that it plans to develop its own SSD drives, as does Seagate, which intends to start shipping solid-state drives based on flash-memory chips sometime next year. BlueArc revealed interoperability between its Titan 2000 storage systems and TMS' RamSan-400 systems, while Solid Data Systems announced its new 1TB StorageSpire SSD arrays, which are intended to compete with traditional high-end RAID arrays, albeit at a far steeper price of approximately $800,000 per 1TB system.

Analysts say the latest SSD market activity reflects a surging need for ever-higher IO performance. "There's more of a demand for applications that deliver information in real-time, or close to real-time, and I think that's really what's driving this," says John Webster, principal IT advisor at Illuminata, Nashua, NH.

Users have generally been skeptical about using SSD for primary storage because its historically high price tag made it difficult to justify the cost. But some users have taken the leap anyway. Mike Brooks, VP of IT infrastructure and technical services at Infor, an Alpharetta, GA-based business software provider, purchased a TMS RamSan-400 to support his company's CRM applications. In the last four years, says Brooks, the company has acquired several other companies, which seriously stressed system performance at times. The RamSan-400 was a fast fix that let Infor quickly alleviate IO bottlenecks; Brooks now plans to use more systems to support the company's other internal finance applications. Still, "it's a much bigger check to write," he says. "Even in a big company when you're telling them 'Yeah, I can improve your IO performance by 400%' they'll ask 'What's that really mean to the desktop?'"

With prices going down, however, SSD seems poised to emerge as an affordable alternative to hard disk at the highest tiers of storage, although analysts and users agree that disk drives won't be completely displaced anytime soon, if ever.

"Disk drives will still have their mass storage potential; it's hard to beat 500GB for $300," says Brooks. "[SSD] will never hit that point but, for a performance environment, I think this will end up being the way everything will eventually go."

--Trina MacDonald

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