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Solid State Storage Ready For Prime Time

There's a well-worn saying in the storage world to describe new and emerging technologies, when no one is quite sure what the actual adoption rate will be: "There's more written about it than on it."

In many ways solid state storage (notice I didn't only say SSD, and that's deliberate) has felt a little like that over the last few years. There's been lots of talk and some amusing puns ('spun up about solid state', 'solid results', 'no-spin zones' etc.), but is this solid state stuff really destined to matter in the big scheme of things? More narrowly, we all know solid state matters in consumer electronics, but will its abilities--performance, compactness, low power usage--translate into the enterprise market? I'm here to state (no pun intended!) that the answer is a definite yes, although the motivations behind the adoption may be broader and different to what's expected. Solid state storage is headed for, and arguably already in, prime time.

So what does "prime time" mean? Well, for starters this is about market relevance, not a take-over per se--spinning disk has plenty of life in it yet. But here's the point--even terms like "relevance" and "take-over" are heavy with historical bias, for we've become accustomed over decades of only talking about storage from one perspective: capacity ("how many $ per GB?"). We need to start thinking differently--all users have stored data that's active, demanding relatively more I/O, and also stored data that's inactive, demanding relatively more space. And, whether it's I/Os or TBs of capacity that are needed, the one consistent factor for IT is that all storage needs to be as inexpensive as possible. Put differently, solid state storage will only be relevant if and where it makes economic sense.

Performance v. $$

But surely solid state is all about performance? Yes and no. We've always known there is a performance challenge resulting from the physical inability of traditional spinning disks to serve up more than a few hundred IOPS each, yet we've found myriad ways around that challenge even without the benefit of solid state storage. So, in fact, even the performance of solid state is not, per se, the root value of solid state as many seem to think. It is not that we could not achieve performance before, but rather that achieving it was way too complex and expensive. In other words, the performance of solid state is--at least for the vast majority of users--a means and not an end in itself. Where solid state is becoming relevant also has nothing to do with capacity (again, at least for the vast majority of users) and has everything to do with serving I/O economically.

With just about every storage systems vendor supporting, developing, and promoting solid state storage in one way or another, it's no surprise that market adoption is happening--but the move from solid state being a specialist, marginal tool for extreme applications to it being a generalist, prime-time technology is based on the growing understanding that--counter-intuitively for something that seems so expensive--it can help to control costs. Of course, the fact it does that without negatively impacting performance, and even often improving it, is great. But its adoption would soon stall were it not economically attractive. Sometimes this fact is hard to discern through the plethora of hyperbole and "specsmanship" that many solid state providers are promoting. You would think that everyone is capable of using a gazillion IOPS! But it's a bit like advertising the top speed of cars--it conveys a degree of capability even if very few drivers ever truly use it or need it.

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