Solid State: From Silver Bullet To Silver Lining

Solid state storage looks to become a standard part of an enterprise IT infrastructure, providing a boost to applications and general IT needs such as tiering and virtualization.

Mark Peters

February 17, 2012

6 Min Read
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If you've had your head buried really deep in the sand, you may have avoided noticing that solid state is a hot topic. However, even if you came up for a quick breathe in the last handful of years--maybe to catch a glimpse of an IT Cloud or to admire your Big Data summary on an iSomething--you couldn't fail to hear the solid state refrain. Certainly solid state is arriving everywhere and in increasing volumes; this is a correct perception as the last article I wrote for Information Week addressed. Interestingly, the reality underlying this growth in adoption is--logically but unexpectedly--driven by economic value as well as by the more obvious performance benefits.

So, we're getting more--and expecting even more--of this solid state stuff, but what is it actually being used for? Did users all suddenly wake up and need uber-performance? Did the price of solid state storage come tumbling down to make its purchase a "no brainer"? The answer to both questions is "maybe a bit but that's not really it." Instead--driven by growing market understanding, combined with the availability of better software management tools--what's happening is that solid state is making the move from a vertical application problem "fixer" to be a broader horizontal "infrastructural play." With a similar "logical but unexpected" twist as the adoption story, the use of solid state is starting to move from specific to general.

Silver Bullets and Silver Linings

Recently ESG conducted research of IT professionals at mid-market and enterprise organizations to discover their current and planned usage of solid state storage technology. In terms of the applications for this "precious metal" (and silicon!) the key findings make interesting reading:

Solid state has--historically--often been purchased in association with particular applications and/or workloads.

Nearly two-thirds of current solid state storage users report that their organizations purchased the technology in order to alleviate performance challenges associated with a specific application: In other words, these applications are the "silver bullets" that vendors are always seeking. Pretty much every user has some application that can benefit from such a boost, but precisely what the application is will vary across users.

Planned solid state purchases are more likely to be for 'horizontal' infrastructural value.

More than half of potential solid state storage adopters do not believe that their organizations will deploy the technology as a means to address specific application performance challenges, but will use it more generally across workloads. This is--you guessed it!--the "silver lining" that applies to a broad spectrum of work. Since many users and applications don't need the marginal peak performance of solid state, it makes sense to use the resource to provide a broad boost across an entire environment. The "sense" is not just operational, but can very well be financial as well (by driving better utilization of, and freeing up the capacity of, spinning disk drives).

Users increasingly understand the value of solid state in virtualized environments.

Current users of solid state were more than twice as likely as potential adopters to single out I/O bottlenecks caused by server virtualization as the primary reason for their initial solid state storage adoption.

Solid state and automated tiered storage are linked.

Automated storage tiering supports the concept of--and drives the need for--data that is in higher demand to be aligned with a higher performing storage tier, such as solid state. It makes sense that a significant number of organizations (both current and potential users of solid state) have seen tiering serve as a catalyst for solid state storage adoption. Interestingly, nearly one-third of current solid state storage users report that the technology actually drove their initial deployment of automated tiered storage.An Infrastructure Play … But Applications Still Matter

In ESG's research, 62% of current solid state users report that their organizations purchased it in order to alleviate performance challenges associated with a specific application. Conversely, more than half of potential solid state storage adopters do not believe that their organizations will deploy the technology as a means to address specific application performance challenges. This shows the shift toward solid state storage having broader horizontal applicability. It may also be reflective of the increasing availability of auto-tiering and caching options for solid state that preclude users from having to be quite so specific in their upfront knowledge of how solid state will be leveraged. Either way, whatever is chicken and whichever is egg, we are clearly headed for a more integrated and "peanut-buttered" use of solid state.

Of course it would be silly to suggest that applications don't matter; our research highlighted a variety of specific application types for which solid state storage was (or may be) acquired. While a range of applications are cited, the most significant in terms of influencing solid state adoption were clearly--and not surprisingly--databases/OLTP and financial applications/ERP. Among potential users there is an increase in the number and type of applications mentioned, which serves to reinforce the concept of a shift toward a more horizontal usage of solid state.

An I/O Aid For Virtualized Server Environments and Automated Tiering

Storage performance is a widely recognized challenge stemming from deployments of server virtualization technology. As such, it is not surprising that more than one-third (38%) of current users identified the alleviation of I/O bottlenecks caused by server virtualization as the primary reason for their organization's initial deployment of solid state storage. Similarly, more than half of potential adopters (59%) divulged that it was at least one of the reasons for deploying or considering solid state storage.

In terms of a link between automated tiered storage and solid state storage, nearly a quarter of current solid state users (24%) are already leveraging automated tiered storage, compared to 17% of potential adopters. But is there a direct linkage beyond commonality? Clearly, such automated tiering supports the concept of--and drives the need for--frequently accessed and/or transactional data to be aligned with a higher performing storage tier--such as solid state. Although potential solid state adopters were almost twice as likely as current users (41% vs. 23%) to dismiss a connection between the two technologies, the number of organizations that have seen tiering serve as a catalyst for solid state storage adoption (45% of current users and 59% of potential adopters) does demonstrate a relationship.

Golden Outlook?

As IT professionals increasingly appreciate the generic, infrastructural value of solid state storage--and as vendors expand their offerings to take advantage of it in a more automated fashion--so we should expect that a small amount of solid state storage will become a standard "modus operandi" for the majority of users. It will be deployed as a horizontal "turbo-boost" sprinkled broadly across not only applications but also general IT needs such as tiering and virtualization; in this way users can get a significantly improved "bang" for their not inconsiderable "buck." As such, the percentage of I/O handled by solid state will far exceed its share of the storage dollar spend and/or of the total installed 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 established as a small but valuable play in capacity terms, and a huge play in I/O importance. In many ways the user focus for solid state is turning from a narrow application focus to a broader applicability--a silver lining for storage infrastructures.

Mark Peters is a Senior Analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, a leading independent authority on enterprise storage, analytics, and a range of other business technology interests.

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