Storage vendors debate where SSDs go in storage infrastructure

Tier 1 storage will eventually consist of solid-state disk (SSD) technology. But there's not much solid-state disk in today's enterprise storage infrastructure.

For a technology with as yet little market penetration, solid-state disk (SSD) is drawing a lot of attention in the storage market these days.

At the end of 2007, SSD was considered at least a few years off from being an enterprise product. But that changed in January 2008 when EMC surprised the storage world by adding support for solid state in its high-end Symmetrix arrays. That set off a blizzard of SSD talk in the storage world, with nearly every major vendor weighing in along with established disk vendors and startups scrambling to get involved.

EMC, which will also offer SSD on its Clariion CX4 midrange arrays starting in October 2008, is shipping systems with solid state. But Hitachi Data Systems, Sun, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NetApp and other, smaller vendors have only declared their intentions regarding solid-state technology.

"Within the next five years, Tier 1 storage will virtually all be solid-state technology," predicted analyst George Crump of Storage Switzerland. "It will happen the way server virtualization happened. We'll talk about it and talk about it, and then all of a sudden this year everybody went from no virtual machines to 500 virtual machines."

But with SSD comes the usual hot technology baggage: naysayers, disputes over how to best employ the technologies, at least one lawsuit and a hostile takeover attempt.

In September, Sun's SSD partner Samsung Electronics offered $5.85 billion to acquire flash memory vendor SanDisk. And what did little SanDisk do? It refused the offer for being too low despite losing $57 million last quarter.

That takeover attempt wasn't the first hostility between disk vendors over solid state. In April, Seagate sued EMC's SSD partner STEC for patent infringements.

Storage vendors are debating where SSD belongs in the infrastructure. Vendors that sell storage and servers believe it should deployed as close to the server's PCI bus as possible. HP and IBM are working with startup Fusion-IO, which makes a PCIe card with a dedicated NAND flash chip. Meanwhile, dedicated storage vendors, such as EMC and HDS, are positioning SSD as an option on disk arrays, while Sun will offer SSD as a cache between server memory and disk.

Despite all the interest in SSDs, some observes think they may not be enterprise-ready. Joel Hagberg, vice president of business development for drive maker Fujitsu Computer Products of America, says the SSD market is in a state of "hype vs. reality" because the technology is unproven in the enterprise. "The specs are tremendous in performance on paper, but a lot less is delivered in operation," he said.

It also seems like many storage administrators are in no hurry to get their hands on SSDs either. "If SSDs become more prevalent and market conditions start to drive them into the price range of current drives, then we would buy them," said Michael Passe, storage architect for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "I don't see that happening for three to five years at least."

On the other hand, online shopping site Shopzilla already deploys SSD from Texas Memory Systems behind OnStor clustered NAS gateways for applications that demand high performance.

The most obvious obstacle to SSD deployment is price. According to Crump, 2 TB of DRAM SSD would currently cost more than $1 million, although the price is dropping fast. When the price comes down, he said, more customers will adopt the technology.

But other factors will drive adoption, such as the growing need for performance on certain applications. "Solid state won't have to become cheaper than disk," Crump said, "because in many environments you don't need all the capacity that you have. I equate it to people buying PCs today. They don't look at speed anymore. All PCs are fast enough for average users, so they look at other features."

According to Crump, applications that will drive SSD adoption are high-I/O databases and NAS-based applications where a lot of servers hit a small set of data.


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