Solid-state still an emerging technology: users, analysts

Cost and other factors are inhibiting its uptake, industry figures say

Organisations are slowly starting to more closely evaluate solid-state storage technologies, though most are still waiting for the cost to come down before implementing it.

This is despite the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) launching a campaign last month to raise awareness of the technology. (See "SNIA to push enterprise use of solid-state storage", Computerworld, September 29).

Several users interviewed recently agreed that solid-state technology could one day boost their companies' bottom lines, but none were ready yet to jump on the bandwagon.

For example, Michael Loffredo, an IT regional manager at real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, says he has tried to determine whether solid-state technology's strong performance, lack of moving parts and increased power efficiency could justify the significant upfront cost.

His analysis found that "the cost is still too expensive".

Loffredo says the company is holding off on any testing of solid-state drives in its IT labs until the costs come down to just 25% to 30% more than traditional hard disk drives.

Jim Handy, a semiconductor market analyst at Objective Analysis, estimates that the average cost of a solid-state drive today is US$5,000 (NZ$8,200) compared with US$300 for a high-speed, platter-based hard drive.

Despite the wide cost disparity, Handy says companies shouldn't simply write off solid-state storage because of the high price. He suggests that a study of how the technology affects storage costs could show that savings would come sooner than expected.

For example, he says, multiple hard drives could be replaced by a single solid-state offering. Currently, "data you don't need that often is on slower drives, and needed data is on faster drives", Handy says. A company could replace those hard drives with a single solid-state one, which would provide a strong return on investment, he says.

He notes that some IT departments "short-stroke" hard drives by placing data only on the outer edges of large-capacity disk drives to ensure fast access. In those cases, users are spending money for a significant amount of unused storage capacity. A solid-state drive offers top performance even when it's filled to capacity, he says.

"That is like the easy prey for the use of enterprise solid-state drives," especially for businesses running more than 100,000 hard disk drives, Handy says.

Loffredo notes that solid-state drive vendors could quickly boost sales to corporate IT by improving trade-in policies. "If the hardware companies were a little more aggressive in their buybacks [of older equipment], that would help" companies deal with high solid-state costs, he says.

Cushman & Wakefield could benefit from using solid-state storage products to store email for its 4,700 users -- if the price was right. Most of the company's agents save old emails to use in future communications with past clients. Storing the documents from that many users requires strong storage and retrieval speeds, Loffredo says.

George Crump, an analyst at Storage Switzerland, predicts that many companies will start turning to solid-state storage systems once they can prove that they significantly boost business.

Businesses like stock traders and financial services firms, which depend heavily on fast data-flow speeds, could benefit from the technology today, Crump says.

He notes that companies can choose from two types of solid-state drives: dynamic RAM-based and flash-based devices. DRAM storage is faster but costs far more than flash-based.

For example, 2TB of flash-based storage costs about US$180,000, compared with about US$1 million for the same amount of DRAM-based storage. "DRAM is faster, but if flash does it for you, why spend the extra money?" Crump asks.

DRAM-based drives, which can read or write data in 0.015 milliseconds, operate at a random speed of 400,000 I/O tasks per second, he says. The drives are best for write-intensive software and for businesses that use high-performance database applications, he adds.

A flash-based storage drive can read or write data in 0.2 milliseconds and operates at read speeds of up to 100,000 I/O tasks per second and write speeds of up to 25,000 I/O tasks per second, Crump said. The technology is best for "read-heavy applications", he adds.

John Webster, an analyst at Illuminata, says enterprise buyers are starting to understand the technical and performance benefits of solid-state drives, but most believe they can get by without them. "It's the typical response," he says. They are "a little bit skeptical at this point".

Raphael Garcia, a backup and storage administrator at the Queens Library in New York, says solid-state technology could save his organisation money over the long run, but as a public entity, the library lacks start-up funding.

The use of the more rugged solid-state drives in laptops for library personnel could result in long-term savings, he says. "They could cost more initially, but then they could save money on maintenance and repairs".

New York-based financial services firm Oppenheimer & Co doesn't need the new technology at this point, says Michael McCardle the company's storage technology manager.

"A lot of bleeding-edge technologies are real nice," he says. "But when you boil it all down, how much of it do you really need?"

Today, Oppenheimer has hard drive storage technologies that provide adequate speed at costs that can be rationalised for the company's 4,000 or so users, McCardle says. "It goes back to the needs of the business," he says. "If the need doesn't exist, then the interest is minimal".

The company's storage technology needs are re-evaluated when business requirements change, but "the purse strings are very tight these days," he notes. "Until we feel pain that will drive the need for a technology refresh," a move to emerging technologies like solid-state storage won't happen.

A systems administrator at another New York-based financial services firm, who asked that his name not be used, says his company has been eyeing solid-state storage technology but hasn't yet decided whether to implement it.

"My company doesn't like bleeding-edge," he says. "They like proven technologies. Down the road, we're going to look at it hard, think hard and reassess the benefits, which may be many."

Ultimately, the performance benefits of the technology could force the firm to spend the extra dollars. "Without speed, we're dead," he says.

A storage architect at a New York-based publishing company, who also asked not to be identified, said the benefits of solid-state wouldn't come close to equalling the costs for businesses in his industry.

"We don't have the applications that necessitate them," he says. "We deal with a different data set compared to firms that do data analysis. We deal with content creation. We find that second-tier storage [such as Serial ATA technology] is adequate for even our highest-performing applications."

Handy noted that to date, only a small percentage of solid-state drives sold are used by large IT organisations. Of about 500,000 sold annually today, only 20,000 are purchased by corporate IT operations.

Objective Analysis projects that the number of solid-state storage devices sold to datacentres will increase to two million per year in 2013, though it will remain a small percentage of that year's projected sales of 50 million units. Solid-state sales will also continue to lag far behind shipments of hard-disk products, which Handy projects will reach 800 million in 2013.

Meanwhile, analyst firm IDC estimates that solid-state drive sales totaled US$396 million in 2007 and that the total will grow at a 70% compound annual growth rate through 2012, says Jeff Janukowicz, an analyst at the firm. Over the long term, he says, "the real growth engine will be derived from new markets that solid-state drives are just now beginning to penetrate. Thus, we think the future continues to look bright."

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