Solid-state storage, which uses Flash memory instead of magnetic disks, has long been heralded as the future of enterprise storage.
“Flash will dominate for the foreseeable future and this will totally change the game in [storage] arrays,” said Joe Tucci, CEO of storage market leader EMC, back in 2008.
“Obviously for this to work we need the prices to come down,” he added, articulating the principle hurdle to solid-state drive (SSD) adoption in the enterprise.
In the intervening years, prices have come down and adoption has grown. According to a recent survey of US-based business by IT analysts the Enterprise Strategy Group, 37% of organisations with over 1,000 employees use SSDs in some capacity.
"The number of enterprise organisations that leverage solid-state storage technology has more than doubled between 2008 and 2012,” ESG wrote in its report. “This can largely be attributed to the continuing drop in solid-state costs."
ESG noted that not only has the “absolute” price of SSDs dropped, but also the emergence of complementary products such as storage caching and tiering tools means the same SSD capacity can be used more effectively.
But Flash still represents a tiny minority of total storage capacity – just 9%, according to ESG. “In simple terms, a lot of users have a little solid-state,” the analyst company wrote.
ESG found that most organisations are either using SSDs to augment disk arrays or as add-ons such as Fusion-io’s storage accelerator cards.
However, there is an emerging breed of start-ups who claim that conventional disk arrays can be completely replaced with Flash-based alternatives.
One example is Pure Storage, which sells an all-Flash storage array which it claims is just as cheap as disk.
Scott Dietzen, the US company’s CEO, says the continued reliance on disk for enterprise storage is an anachronism.
Travesty of disks
"It's a travesty that $15 billion a year is being spent on this archaic technology," says Dietzen. "Flash offers 50 times better performance, but it's also non-mechanical, so it takes substantially less energy and is dramatically more reliable.”
So far, though, enterprise storage systems that use Flash have treated SSDs as though they were mechanicals disks, Dietzen argues. Pure takes another approach.
"Our founder John Colgrove [formerly a founding engineer at Veritas] was experimenting with SSDs and he realised that assumptions about how to manage storage were all wrong in the disk-centric software of the day," explains Dietzen. "Flash was going to require a complete rewrite and be redesigned from scratch, which Pure was put together to do."
Pure uses proprietary deduplication algorithms to maximize the capacity of SSD. Dietzen claims that the company’s storage system costs $10 per Gigabyte or less, compared to $40 to $50 for its competitors.
Furthermore, he says the product is simple. “Incumbent [storage] technologies are so complex, you can’t buy them without a consultant. That just doesn't make any sense in the modern data centre.”
But a start-up trying to crack into the storage market cannot afford to impose that kind of management burden on its customers. “If we were to bring something to the market that's complex, then people wouldn't deploy it.”
Pure’s Flash Array Storage is so simple, Dietzen claims, “even our marketing director can install it”.
Diezten believes the entire disk storage market will eventually be replaced with Flash, but Pure has identified some initial use cases to get the ball rolling. These include virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which Dietzen says “kills disk storage. There's such a high performance requirement and it's so random [input / output] intensive, the disks just can't keep up”.
So how is Pure performing? Dietzen claims that it is "the fastest-growing storage technology company in history”, but declined to provide sales figures to back that up.
The company has certainly attracted investor interest, having raised $94 million in four rounds since 2009, and it counts engineering giant Siemens and marketing agency Yodel among its customers.
But it is by no means the only company gunning for the enterprise SSD opportunity. Violin Memory, Nimbus, QLogic and SolidFire are just some of the start-ups competing with Pure, while both EMC and NetApp are all developing Flash-only storage systems.
Of course, from Dietzen’s point of view, this is all simply validation of the idea. “When you have two market leaders endorsing your world view, and you've got at least 18 months ahead of them,” he says, “that puts you in a good position to grow the business."