Has Flash Storage Reached Its Tipping Point?

By Lee Caswell, vice president of Product, Solutions and Services Marketing, NetApp

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes how hot trends are adopted more quickly than anyone would rationally expect. By mapping how viruses spread, he describes the rapid adoption of powerful new ideas, products, and norms when conditions are right—aka at the tipping point. With adoption rates over 100 percent, flash technology has reached this tipping point. Here’s a look at what makes it the latest hot trend in technology.

Flash Value Started With Performance

Flash was originally introduced as a premium storage performance media. By substituting solid-state performance for mechanical disk drives, flash users routinely realized 10-20 times performance improvements for high performance databases and virtual environments. But flash adoption was limited because flash solid-state drives (SSDs) were more expensive for capacity than hard disk drives (HDDs).

New Flash Prices Create the Opportunity

The price of flash media has dropped dramatically over the past two years. Semiconductor costs are largely driven by volume, and flash technology is used in the highest number of devices in the market, namely mobile phones, tablets, and notebooks. Enterprise storage customers are benefitting from the economic growth in flash while, in contrast, disk shipments are falling.

At the same time, technology improvements in flash cell design cram more information in each cell, and vendors are even stacking flash cells vertically to improve density. As a result, flash SSD capacities this year will surpass the largest hard disk drive for the first time ever. This helps costs since more flash capacity can be amortized across fewer controllers for more efficient use of power, cooling, and rack space.

New compression and deduplication technologies further reduce flash costs by cutting absolute capacity requirements. While disk drive technologies relied on “post-process” storage efficiencies, flash solutions perform compression and deduplication in real time. These real-time storage efficiencies reduce the amount of required flash, and therefore the cost, from 2-15 times depending on the application.

IT Management Scarcity Topples Mainstream IT

A tipping point requires an environment ready for change. The IT reality of 2016 is characterized by a scarcity of IT skills and an economic crunch on cost controls precisely when technology change is accelerating. The first flash solutions made the situation worse with niche applications that solved performance problems with even more complexity and flash data silos.

Now flash can be simply integrated into existing infrastructure to leverage scarce IT management skills and contain costs across flash, disk, and even cloud resources. Customers can easily consolidate management skills across SAN (storage area networks) and NAS (network attached storage) resources now that flash offers both the performance of blocks and the management simplicity of files.

Even better, flash floods infrastructure with storage performance to slash debugging, tuning, and configuration times in half. Performance problems are the most difficult IT problems to resolve since they are generally urgent and require a deep understanding of the complex interactions of storage, compute, network, hypervisors, and applications. Flash gives this time back and frees up the most senior personnel to work on higher value-added projects.