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The Explosive Growth of Flash Storage in 2013

In 2013, enterprises around the globe have made flash standard equipment for their storage arrays.  As the end of the calendar year is only days away, it is difficult to foresee a new enterprise-class storage array being developed and deployed without incorporating flash in one form or another.

Flash memory has taken the staid storage industry by storm.  First utilized in consumer products, such as the iPod, flash storage has now become the new star of enterprise IT.  A primary reason for this is speed. At speeds of up to 400 times faster than standard rotating disks, flash-based solid state disks, or SSDs, are capable of proficiently handling the growing storage needs of today’s evolving enterprise IT.  When comparing flash storage vs SSD, the speed differential becomes apparent in no time at all.

As an established mainstay in enterprise environments, flash array storage is a significant driver of faster system responses and communication channels.  Through the use of flash storage, social networking companies, such as Facebook, are able to better respond to increased traffic burdens.  Flash storage is also behind numerous new cloud-based services.  This new technology is creating a rising demand for enterprise-level storage and digital content distribution.  The demand for flash storage and its implementation will only increase as storage costs continue to decline.

Flash has also been widely adopted as an aide to storage controller DRAM.  Flash modules now fill many PCI cards, allowing them to inflate the effective memory cache capacity of enterprise storage arrays, further enhancing their performance and providing possibly the fastest flash acceleration options.  Although this same approach can also be taken with server-side flash, enterprise IT did not fully embrace this option in 2013.  Perhaps this is due to the unwillingness of infrastructure teams to exchange a few additional IOPS for the disturbance that takes place when installing software drivers and new cards into critical business servers.

Interestingly, there was an overwhelming absence of trade press stories indicating any problems whatsoever with flash reliability.  This lack of news was welcomed by flash storage companies, such as Intel, given the fact that initial concerns regarding the potential wear-out of flash cells was well-publicized. Recognizing the importance of flash technology, storage vendors have addressed this early concern by implementing bad-block management and wear-leveling software.  These techniques, it appears, have worked as advertised.

Throughout 2013, the silicon factories of flash vendors transitioned from producing 32nm-class flash dies to 19nm-class dies, which are much smaller and denser.  This transition, along with the widespread use of multilevel cells, has enabled the creation of enterprise-class 800GB SSDs, a substantial improvement over the 200GB options on offer only one year ago.  Although there has been one vendor touting the development of a 10nm die, there are still some questions regarding whether or not substantially more capacity can be extracted from flash memory.

Thanks to economies of scale, popular flash manufacturers, such as Dell, have been able to increase the storage capacity of their products while lowering their prices.  Although flash memory is not necessarily cheap, enterprise vendors have adopted inventive ways of offsetting this cost, including experimenting with forward error correction to eliminate penalties associated with RAID capacity.

Throughout 2013, no new storage technologies were developed that threatened the persistent spread of flash in enterprise storage systems.  At the same time, however, storage vendors continued to promote memristors, carbon nanotubes, phase-change memory, spin-torque transfer, and other alternative memory technologies.  While these technologies certainly are interesting, they have thus far failed to prove to be worthy competition to enterprise flash storage.

Although the production lines seem ready to produce large quantities of memristors and phase-change memory technology, there are a myriad of factors that are delaying investment.  Such factors include their high cost of fabrication and widespread uncertainty as to when flash will no longer benefit from performance enhancements and lower pricing.  Only at such a time will new enterprise storage technologies become a viable alternative.

Competition aside, there was quite a significant amount of jockeying for position and pack-shuffling within the flash market itself throughout 2013.  Of the handful of enterprise flash startups that benefitted from substantial funding, two announced plans for an IPO launch, two were acquired, and two dissolved.  In addition to this activity, the major enterprise storage vendors released product roadmaps that placed a heavy emphasis on all of their flash products.

There have been few enterprise storage technologies in recent years that have been as rapidly and widely adopted as flash was in 2013.  With a current stronghold on the enterprise storage industry, the flash trend seems poised to continue throughout 2014.

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