Flash Storage The Final Frontier? Breaking the $1/GB barrier
By   |  September 19, 2015

Flash storage is the hottest buzzword today. Priceless not so long ago, manufacturers now claim that the union of capacitive and performance storage is now a matter of months. But are we talking about the same technologies? Decryption.

It has become impossible nowadays to disregard Flash technology in all IT projects with a storage component. But let’s not forget that this term covers several product families, each with their specific and privileged usage scenarios.

According to several studies conducted by IDC and Gartner, over the next five years, more than 95% of IT investments will be devoted to network and storage infrastructure. The latter is changing phase. So far mainly composed of mechanical drives, the data access needs require much more performance, scalability and agility. Hybrid storage solutions first made their appearance, to balance the best of both worlds: capacitive spaces based on mechanical disks that still represent the best capacity / cost ratio and besides, SSD performance was out of reach for years. In 2014, the combined sectors of racks full Flash and hybrid represented $ 11.3 billion worldwide. For comparison, the turnover in Western Europe servers accounted for $ 3.7 billion in 2014. With an estimated growth of this market in double digits over the next five years.

Is all flash storage at hand?
Since last year, several actors have generalized full flash storage arrays in their product portfolios. The aim is to improve performance in critical applications for the enterprise. Websites, data and big data processing bases and Internet of Things are the main reasons companies invest today. These solutions provide at least ten times higher performance compared to conventional disk drives. It is also the most innovative segment. Leveraging its specificities in terms of speeds and latency, manufacturers add mechanisms to increase efficiency such as thin provisioning, compression, deduplication, snapshots, cloning and replication. With the stated goal to balance the difference in cost and capacity compared to traditional storage devices.

A gap smaller than it appears
Legend has it that to win ten times performance, the Flash storage costs ten times as much. This is likely if you only take cost into consideration. To effectively compare the two approaches, it should be taken into account all the costs during the life cycle of each technology through their TCO. And by doing so, the gap narrows significantly. The reason is simple: conventional disks have a considerably higher energy consumption, and must be constantly cooled further to retain their operation temperature. It is moreover not the only parameter to be considered. The space per square meter in a datacenter is expensive, very expensive. Over a period of three years, taking into account all the above parameters, this results in a lower TCO estimated by IDC 80% in favor of Flash storage!

The new actors make the most affordable flash storage
But then, the entry ticket to acquire full Flash berries was until recently, prohibitive. The investment could reach several hundred thousand euros to have a latest generation array. This emerging market with longtime established actors like IBM, EMC or Nutanix and which had its own dynamic, is already being pushed by new entrants like Atlantis Computing and others. This company just arrived in Europe, and displays clear ambitions: to offer hyperconverged servers and appliances incorporating Flash storage at the lowest cost. Its new full flash HyperScale appliances 12TB boast reduced costs of 50-90% in comparison with appliances such as the hybrid NX-3461 (308 000 $) and full flash NX-9240 (800 000 $) of Nutanix. In comparison, Atlantis Computing has put a very aggressive price tag on its HyperFlash appliance: 78,000 dollars. This amounts to 6.5 dollars per gigabyte, against 25 and $ 66 / gigabyte with Nutanix’ models. A significant difference which, without tipping the market the next day, still promises to generate some questioning among users doing their market studies berfore acquiring Flash storage arrays.

The little secret of the actors of Flash storage
It must be said that Atlantis Computing, like almost all the players in this sector, have a little secret about which they communicate more or less widely: the “actual” capacity. Remember this word because it represents the difference between the displayed and the actual, useable capacity. By acquiring a 12 TB appliance if you open however often you count and recount, you will not find 12 TB of flash memory, but between 30 and 50% less, i.e. 6-8 actual gigabytes, for which the dedicated qualifier is “raw”. An appliance marketed as having 12 TB will in fact only have a portion of what a company believes to acquire. This is not false advertising but merely different presentation. Not a problem per se, provided the customer is aware and informed.

Optimization mechanisms
How do manufacturers to sell fewer than flash storage than their claims? They actually rely on a string of mechanisms which the storage world has the secret: compression and thin provisioning are the keywords. In other words, they apply a compression ratio to sell 6-8 Gigabytes real, marketed as being roughly equivalent to 12GB of uncompressed data. It is a rule that it is better to know what you buy … and it does relativize the sometimes outlandish claims of scientific calculations on TCO, which are based on irrefutable technical properties, but whose calculation parameters may not be totally comparable across different manufacturer’s models.

StorTrends, another troublemaker – objective: 50 cents gigabyte
As we see, the race to go under the symbolic $ 1 per gigabyte goes full swing. And now another actor in ambush, the US giant American Megatrends, bluntly announced an AFA (All Flash Appliance) to aim this time, 50 cents per gigabyte! Its model StorTrends 3500i offers 56 TB of storage expandable to 256 GB. This model has the distinction of being marketed in hybrid version at entry level, and can be upgraded to full flash later on. Aimed at small and medium enterprises, it uses conventional disk drives and flash SSD caching, and an automatic tiering mechanism takes care to offer the best performance for the most requested data are deported on the SSDs. And resulting with latencies of around 3 milliseconds against 10 ms for conventional discs. Switching to full-flash gets the latency down to 1 millisecond.

Incumbents cons attack
HP is no exception, and intends to be present in this new emerging market. Evidenced by the recent announcement of its StorVirtual 4335, a hybrid appliance that displays 12 times the performance with a 90% energy reduction to 12.4 Terabytes capacity for 59,000 dollars. At the other end of the spectrum is the MSA 2040 SAN 2U storage array, capable of hosting 200, 400, 800 and 1.6 TB SSDs each for a total of 38.4 TB raw storage capacity, and sold 25% cheaper than its predecessors. The starting price of each SSD is $ 1,599. The MSA 2040 SAN also has sophisticated properties tailored for integration with an enterprise infrastructure with features like snapshots, replication, copy volume and self-encryption of volumes and disks.

Higher, stronger, further: flash for Big Data
A couple months ago, Sandisk, one of Flash storage historical players, has made an announcement that caused a stir by launching its InfiniFlash storage server, intended for Big Data markets. Admittedly, the dimensioning of the InfiniFlash is related to the ambitious target of the manufacturer. Available in three versions (IF500, IF700 and IF900) this 3U chassis is packed with Flash cards – up to 64 – each with 8 TB of Flash for a total of 512 TB.

Data centers also take flash storage into account
As emphasized by Pascal Cheyroux from Sandisk, flash technology is about to establish itself as an integral part of daily operations performed in large datacenters. Many companies seek to bridge the gap between faster processors and storage performance offered by traditional hard drives. In order to accomplish this, they adopt flash technology, which brings speed and performance to the infrastructure. This development is also highlighted by IDC, which estimates that last year, at least half of IT services of large companies have deployed servers and storage arrays with flash technology to manage their workloads. IDC also states that 80% of storage devices shipped in 2015 will be compatible with flash technology, which is a sign we are entering the era of Flash-Transformed Data Center (FTDC).

This mutation is explained in part by the emergence of cloud computing in the enterprise, along with the increased pressure on cloud service providers that must offer solid guarantees on application performance predictability. These trends, plus Big Data analysis, social media and mobility are all challenges for CIOs who must keep pace with high demand and heavy workloads.
It is the combination of these challenges announcing the evolution of datacenters towards what we call the “flash-Transformed data center”, where each floor is rapidly embracing flash technology. But what is the real significance of this transformation? What is the impact for companies whose business depends on the cloud?

Flash agility allows for more complexity
First, flash technology deployed in servers, storage and network infrastructure appliances provide faster processing, which results in the ability to process more complex analysis, a higher level of security and greater respect for the environment. Flash technology accelerates application performance in the cloud and can process large volumes of data without being penalized by the slowdown in I/O operations related to storage bottlenecks. It also supports the analysis of Big Data that identifies “models” within the data and produces executable data for the company.

This is why cloud service providers (CSPs) that offer a range of professional services in the form of “software as a service” (SaaS – Software as a Service) adopt flash technology to attain speed and performance . This approach translates directly into added value related to the provision of more efficient and faster business services. This trend will increase, since a growing number of data center hosts a growing volume of business workloads.

Safety and speed, the two prongs of tomorrow’s data center
Secondly, Flash technology also improves corporate security by increasing the speed at which the data is analyzed. In our information age, threats to the business assets are mainly digital, and various applications and monitoring systems designed to fight against these threats share a common challenge: a constantly increasing volume of data to be analyzed and an increasingly narrow reaction window. In addition, flash technology reduces the analysis times and speeds up automated responses.

Flash champions in energy consumption
Finally, the energy consumption is another good point for Flash technology. According to Michael Bell, vice president of Gartner, “more than 50% of data centers consume more than 6 kilowatts per rack in two years and this number will rise to 70% and then to 80% in four years due to increasing the density of computer equipment.” Facing such expenses as Michael Bell calls them, is “fundamentally unsustainable”, it is however possible to reverse the trend of ever increasing infrastructure costs by deploying flash technology in data centers. Flash technology reduces up to 90% energy consumption of data centers with equivalent application performance while supplying the data to a sustainably higher rate. It avoids the use of energy-hungry IT equipment, thus reducing the energy requirements of the data center while maintaining or even increasing, application performance, and lowering their huge operating costs.

For these reasons, Flash technology is a driving force for transforming the data center in order to respond to the next wave of computing requirements by speeding the performance of enterprise applications and databases, while making these data more quickly available to businesses.

It is for these reasons that Flash technology will play a decisive role in the computing landscape of tomorrow, as it continues to establish itself in servers and storage environments. As such, it will have a beneficial impact on all major categories of enterprise and cloud solutions, while following the pace of change in the world of business today.

Market Research performance
We see, and no offense to his detractors, flash storage as having a very bright future. If the vast majority of storage spaces do not require millisecond low-latency offered by flash technology, some sectors will earn huge benefits. This is the case of content repositories, streaming media and services, large volumes of data for real-time analysis and public high-traffic web infrastructure. Another example cited by Pascal Cheyroux, Sales Director Southern Europe Sandisk regarding the video surveillance market. No conventional video surveillance, but rather airports or whole sea ports. Using dozens of 4K cameras, made necessary by the extent of the area and to be able to zoom in on an incident where applicable, means reviewing the rest of the infrastructure, he insists. The reason is the data access time. If the time needed for video consultation exceeds that of the automatic purge – and we talk about periods of six months – the result is counterproductive. Flash infrastructure allows bringing that period down to a mere few days.

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