Are Flash Solid-State Disk Drives Ready for the Enterprise?

By: Marius Tudor
Director, Business Development
BiTMICRO Networks

Solid-state disks (SSDs) were originally designed in the 1980s for use as cache in real-time performance hungry applications, as well as mass storage in industrial and military systems, where immunity against shock, vibration, and extreme temperatures was required. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, SSDs remained a relatively expensive niche product - a high-cost technology only justified for mission-critical applications such as those found in the avionics and defense industries, with few and far-in-between deployments in the IT arena.

That was then. Today we are witnessing tremendous improvements in processing technology due to increasingly complex and demanding applications. Considering the steady declines in the cost of memory, demand for SSDs in all applications has significantly increased, with most of the upward movement and new demand emerging in the commercial enterprise market.

The two main types of SSDs are DRAM-SSDs and Flash-SSDs. In the past two decades, IT managers would primarily refer to DRAM-SSDs when discussing ways to improve I/O and access time performance in various applications. However, aside from the fast sustained read/write and low latency characteristics everyone enjoyed, DRAM-SSDs also had major inherent weaknesses: these storage devices are volatile and will lose all their data unless an alternative power source is provided within 10 milliseconds. Moreover, they consume huge amounts of power and generate excessive heat.

The built-in disadvantage of volatility was partially dealt with by building, as part of the DRAM SSD, an expensive back-up support system comprised of hard disk drives (HDDs) and batteries. However, volatility concerns still remained valid for most applications requiring high availability. At the same time, as system front end caches and DRAM SSD requirements continue to rise, two critical challenges emerge. These include high power consumption and its corollary effect, high heat dissipation. These issues necessitated higher capacity and more expensive power supplies coupled with better cooling.

Industry analysts have been relentlessly searching for solutions to enhance the capability of SSDs to provide higher Inputs/Outputs per second (IOPS) at lower latencies, while eliminating volatility and addressing power consumption/heat dissipation concerns.

On the other side of the spectrum are Flash-SSDs. These storage devices are non-volatile and can retain data for up to 10 years without system power. At the heart of Flash-SSDs are Flash memory chips, which consume a fraction of the power DRAM memory draws. This also amounts to less heat being generated and the possibility, in some cases, of completely eliminating fans - the last moving part in a storage system.

What does one obtain? The holy grail of solid-state storage: no moving parts. "OK. Then why didn't the IT world rush in and replace their DRAM system caches and SSDs with Flash-SSDs?" might be a self-evident question. The fact of the matter is that, until recently, both memory types have been more expensive than what a wide array of applications could justify, while a single DRAM chip has been and still is faster than one discrete Flash chip. How does it all add up?

In the following sections, we will discuss the role of SSDs in different market segments, the applications that stand to benefit most from this technology, and price/performance trends in Flash-SSDs.

Market Segments

Since the introduction of the first PC, data storage has been playing a critical role in enabling significant changes in the computer, communications and consumer electronics industries:

In addition to the constantly increasing need for higher storage capacity, the storage industry is confronted now with the need to provide products that allow data to be accessed instantaneously from as many locations as possible. The need for increased transfer bandwidth impacts the storage industry as well. Further, storage needs arise from the pervasiveness of mobile computing and mobile communications: high ruggedness, resistance to tough environmental conditions and high reliability.

The reliability requirements are pushed even higher by developments in the area of network storage and network storage architectures. It is paramount for storage service providers (SSPs) to guarantee that data accessed over networks never get lost and always becomes accessible uncorrupted and in a timely manner.

The high performance levels of SSDs allow them to replace or complement mechanical disk drives in computer, communications and consumer electronics equipment, improving performance or work conditions further. In addition, SSDs have become the storage solution of choice in avionics, industrial, medical and military equipment that require superior reliability levels and where adverse mechanical and environmental conditions are present.

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