• 04/22/2013
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IBM Makes Economic Case for All-Flash Arrays

IBM claims all-flash arrays are now more economical than traditional hard disks for Tier-1 storage. Is it time to ditch spinning disks?

Still there are some possible concerns that have to be addressed in IBM's analysis.

• Realistic examples -- IBM stated that its analysis was representative of a common situation and would apply on a general basis within an enterprise deployment. Its calculations may not produce the same results in small businesses and mid-sized organizations.

• Scalability -- The ability to scale means that you have to be able to climb the 1 PB or more storage mountain. IBM confirmed that it has at least one customer with greater than 1 PB of flash storage.

• Reliability and durability -- Flash memory is known for wearing out after so many writes, which is a legitimate concern for organizations that plan to invest significant sums of money. There are workarounds, of course. For instance, software designed to help lessen or avoid the problem is deployed nearly universally; and manufacturers warranty their products for five years. Of course, redeeming a warranty may not be sufficient compensation if a flash failure has a significant impact on your business or requires a great effort from staff to recover.

• True commitment -- A customer who buys into the flash model wants to know it has a vendor partner that's also committed. So how committed is IBM to all-flash? It has promised $1B for flash research and development; it has set up 12 Flash Centers of Competence around the world, and it has announced the IBM FlashSystem that builds upon its acquisition of Texas Memory Systems (TMS); IBM is committed.

No Instant Transition to All Flash

IBM competitors in the all-flash array space (from large players, such as EMC and NetApp to smaller players, such as Kaminario, Nimbus Data, SolidFire, and WhipTail) are probably thrilled with this announcement. IBM's commitment may help loosen up the market, and these competitors can point to IBM's analysis that all-flash arrays are economically justifiable for replacing all Tier 1 storage when they talk to customers.

Still, the transition will not occur overnight. First, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, businesses will continue refreshing their Tier 1 storage in roughly three to five years. Second, enterprises will have to kick the all-flash storage array tires, and that can take some time. And don't forget uneven adoption cycles in which many are slow to adopt new technologies (or may delay adoption indefinitely) although there have already been a lot of flash deployments.

Finally, there is a wild card factor. A wind that is good for some (all-flash array companies) blows ill for others (software companies). Remember that the majority of the savings in IBM's analysis comes out of the pockets of software companies whose traditional licensing models are built around traditional architectures.

Those vendors will probably adjust their license models to try to extract more money from all-flash array environments, as well as create their own hardware environments with the claim that everything runs better as it is all from us. This is not likely to be a totally successful effort (as they don't want to cannibalize existing customer revenues, and changing licensing models is not easy), but they are likely to react if they see their sales affected.

Mesabi Musings

Just as tape storage is not dead, so the appearance of IBM's new Flash initiative and investment does not mean that disk is dead. But similar to tape, disk's role is changing. Use cases, such as active archiving for large capacity requirements, are likely to continue. This means large-capacity disks are likely to continue serving useful purposes. But Tier 1 hard disk drives' days are numbered (although somebody will probably find some specialized use cases for them).

In the meantime, we can expect to be inundated by all-flash array vendors as they seek to gain market share. IT customers should benefit from the competition, but they should also plan a qualification and adoption strategy that allows them to enjoy and profit from these innovations at a pace with which they are comfortable.

IBM is a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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