Born in a cross fire Hurricane? Well you might just as well be! The emergence of flash memory technology as a viable enterprise storage option has seen a meteoric rise in the last couple of years, and is widely touted to be one of the big ticket items in IT for 2013. But are we seeing the beginning of the demise of the venerable mechanical hard disk drive?

Some might say it’s about time, given that the hard disk technology, which started with ’s RAMAC, the first commercial disk storage to use a moving head, is now over 56 years old.

And we have all most likely succumbed to the limitations of the hard disk through disk head crashes or data loss some point in our careers. But what does flash have to offer, and is it a viable alternative?

Like so much in the IT industry the answer is often arrived at through speed, economics and scale. The attraction of flash technology focuses on the reliability, performance and cost profile compared with hard disks. For example a typical comparison between flash and hard disk technologies shows that flash has the following benefits:

• Flash storage technologies are becoming price affordable compared to hard disk pricing
• 250 times improvement in I/O operations (read)
• Three times improvement in throughput (read)
• 40 times improvement in cost per I/O operation
• 600 times improvement in power consumed per IOP
• 2.5 times less power consumed per solid state drive (SSD) – six watts versus 16 watts (typical)

The potential impact for driving significant efficiency improvements within the datacentre is clear, as well as delivering improved business and competitive benefi ts through acceleration of time sensitive business applications. Flash is a very flexible technology and it is fabricated in a number of different form factors, such as PCIe flash cards or SSD. It can also be deployed as a memory tier in the server, the network, the storage controller or the storage array. It can be presented as a persistent cache, or as a standalone all-flash array, but each approach has its benefits and needs careful consideration in order to achieve the desired return.

Ultimately, flash technologies will enable businesses to re-evaluate their storage strategy, including the potential to stop overprovisioning storage and improve the ROI of IT investments. Those that have followed the overprovisioning approach typically had no choice in order to achieve the required performance profiles due to the limitations of hard disk technology.

An example of the potential to redress this is that just 24 SSDs are more than capable of delivering similar performance and throughput to 1 000 enterprise hard drives. A simple energy cost comparison over five years at today’s wholesale energy prices results in the enterprise hard disk power costing around R480 000 while the SSDs cost only about R4 300 to run over the same period.

Flash technology is already having a profound and disruptive impact on enterprise storage strategy. Although flash will not replace hard disk technology entirely in the near term, flash and hard disk technologies will continue to complement each other for many years. Skills in discovering the right workloads to take advantage of flash technologies at the right price and performance point will be key, ultimately leading to a change in the balance between memory, cache and persistent storage. The primary workloads for flash technologies are those that drive faster time to market though near instant application response times, such as database applications, transaction processing and virtual desktop implementations.

The flash storage market is still young and the advice is to take a good look at the current and emerging flash technologies, take the time to understand the pros and cons around the technology. But most importantly, begin to put plans in place to formulate a clear flash storage strategy for your organisation today.