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SSDs Dragged Storage Out Of The Dark Ages In 2013

For three decades, storage lived in the Dark Ages. Architectures were fixed. Excitement meant shaving half a millisecond off average access times. Basically, we were stuck in a rut, while CPUs got much, much faster. The result was that overall systems didn't speed up all that much, even as the CPU followed Moore's Law -- despite all the hype from Intel.

Then along came the SSD in 2007, with drive performance thousands of times faster than spinning rust. A single SSD could outperform EMC's best and biggest array.

The SSD rollout was initially slow. Early design errors, flash write wearout, and applications designed around slow HDD all contributed to the delay, and the recession put further pressure on sales. People basically hunkered down with their gear for a while.

Now, six years later, it looks like SSD and flash are finally reaching the sweet spot of mainstream acceptance. First-quarter volumes doubled over 2012, starting the year off well. Growth has continued at a stellar pace, tripling year-over-year by the third quarter.

The first 1 TB SSDs reached the market in 2013, and at reasonable prices. These drives retail for as low as $500, which is actually quite comparable with the enterprise fast HDD they are replacing. Of course, they don't compete for price with $60 entry-level drives, but that's like comparing a Ferrari to a wheelbarrow.

The performance end of the server market, big data analytics, is embracing ultra-fast PCIe SSD to enable leading-edge in-memory architectures. PCIe solutions are finding homes in virtual desktop deployments, where the boot storm at 9:00 a.m. made HDD unfeasible. Surveillance systems with fast image scanning and video-editing workstations have swung over to these drives, as well.

The tablet and phone industry has been flash-based from the start. This year saw a massive erosion of PC desktop sales, and predictions of a continued slide into the future. As a by-blow of the mobile success story, flash is pushing HDD off the desktop. It isn't happening overnight, but flash can be declared the winner of that battle already, even though revenue parity with HDD in the PC segment won't be reached until 2017.

The SAN battleground is also rolling over to flash and SSD. All the major vendors have all-flash arrays, with eye-popping performance in the millions of IOPS range. These relatively inexpensive boxes are being touted as the top storage tier. EMC even describes its vaunted VNX array as a "Tier 1 Flash system with a Tier 2 Bulk HDD Storage System." Used as caches, installation is fast, easy, and risk-free.

The plus for vendors is they have something new to sell, and both entrenched manufacturers and startups like Violin garnered large sales in 2013 from speeding up SANs. Even so, tuning applications to use those phenomenal IOPS is still in its infancy, especially with legacy COBOL code. This suggests a good rate of growth for the all-flash array segment as this problem is overcome.

Another major growth segment of the IT industry, cloud computing, has also proved susceptible to the joys of SSD. Amazon Web Services announced a raft of SSD-based instances in November, which may prove to be very attractive for IO-bound users. It remains to be seen whether those users trade many instances with slow HDD for fewer instances with SSD, and if they save money in the process.

The net of all of this is that 2013 will be remembered as the Year of the SSD. Storage has changed forever, and we'll be glad for it.

Jim O'Reilly is a former engineering and business executive who currently works as an executive consultant providing temporary executive services, strategy and roadmap creation, business development support, and architecture and design advice.