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Tech Watch: Solid prospects for solid state storage drives

Heather Clancy

Over the past few years, solid state memory has built quite a following in gadgets such as flash drives, USB memory sticks and digital cameras. It's also one of the brains in your mobile phone, thanks to its low weight and power requirements. While solid state isn't exactly new, the technology is finding new applications in the mobile field within a generation of lighter, more energy-efficient notebooks. What's more, solid state drives (SSDs) are sparking interest as an emerging option for enterprise storage.

Hopkinton, Mass.-based

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EMC Corp. plans to announce the general availability this month of the EMC Symmetrix DMX-4 storage system, which will use single-layer flash technology. In addition, a new company, Durham, N.C.-based Pliant Systems Inc., received $8 million in Series A funding in mid-February to develop new SSDs for enterprise markets. The company is led by former executives from several well-known storage industry players, including Control Data, Emulex, Fujitsu, IBM, Maxtor, Q-Logic, Quantum, TeraStor and Seagate.

Solid state drives will enable a new category of high-performance applications, such as quantitative analysis for electronic trading, where latency is a big issue, said Bob Wambach, senior director of Symmetrix product marketing for EMC. While traditional shortcomings of solid state have included slow write speed and a tendency to wear out after a relatively small number of writes, EMC has built a series of flash drives that offer faster read/write performance, high reliability and data integrity, he said.

"The real benefit to many customers is the response time, which is an order of magnitude faster," Wambach said. "This really is great for customers who have workloads that require low latency and high transaction rates."

Based on the results of early tests of the new storage line, EMC says additional advantage comes in the area of energy efficiency. The company said its flash drives can store 1 TB of data, using approximately 38% of the energy it would take to store the same amount using traditional mechanical disk drives.

Although EMC wouldn't disclose pricing, Wambach said the per-gigabyte cost for the DMX-4 would be about 30 times the per-gigabyte price of traditional magnetic drives.

Solid state progress

A number of technical advances are helping to change the discussion around flash memory, said Clod Barrera, chief technical strategist for IBM System Storage technology. These advances include progress in phase-change memory (also known as PCM or PRAM), which is a type of nonvolatile memory that uses materials such as chalcogenide. And there's technology in development that allows you to store even more on the same size disk.

"Instead of having a full rack of disks, I could have 4u in one rack. Instead of full racks of power, I am using one-twentieth the power that this normally would take," said Barrera. "This doesn't mean disks are going away; this is a fairly narrow niche of server-class processing," he added.

"What is gradually changing now are [solid state storage's] overall performance and reliability characteristics in terms of enterprise usage," said Mark Peters, an analyst with consultancy Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. According to Peters, the cost per gigabyte remains high; it's dropping, likely at a faster rate than magnetic hard drives, but its cost makes it a hard sell outside the consumer space. However, he said, "it's all a straightforward economic trade-off. Put simply, if SSD were cheap enough, why would you have anything spinning at all?"

Therein lies the crux of the matter: cost. While he's watching solid state storage with interest, Greg Nightingale, manager of enterprise storage for San Antonio-based value-added reseller (VAR) Sirius Computer Solutions, believes it will take three to five years for the technology to become anything more than a niche play in commercial storage. "The primary market inhibitor, at this point, is that solid state technology is the antithesis of what most IT customers are asking for, which is denser, bigger and cheaper," he said.

While IBM hasn't made any announcements about storage products akin to the EMC offering, the company has moved to offer solid state drives as an option on select blade servers.

SSDs are a great option for blade servers that are used for I/O-intensive applications but have low storage requirements, said Scott Smith, senior vice president of Denville, N.J.-based VAR Micro Strategies Inc. "In this environment, you can have a server with very few or no moving parts," Smith said. "We have been using solid state for many years now -- think USB drives -- but as it moves to the server market, it makes for a perfect OS partition, especially in blades where the typical environment is a few small mirrored drives for the OS and all other storage is on the SAN." That said, Smith does believe current uses of flash are limited by its capacity.

Solid state storage is also getting plenty of air play for its ability to aid thinner, lighter and durable designs, such as Apple's new MacBook Air (which costs more than $3,000 in the SSD configuration). But SSDs have great appeal for the corporate mobile audience, as well.

In mid-February, Dell revealed it will launch what it calls the Dell Flash Ultra Performance SSD, which is based on Samsung's SATA II-SSD technology, in 32 GB and 64 GB capacities (128 GB is on the way). The drive will become an option for Dell Precision, Latitude, Alienware and XPS laptops. According to Dell's technical blog, the drive provided for a 35% performance increase in the Latitude model when compared with a notebook configured with a standard 2.5-inch, 5,400-rpm drive. (The company used the SYSmark 2007 for the test.) The downside: The drives will command a hefty price premium.

Toshiba has had a solid state option for its Portege R500 line since last summer, when a model with a 64 GB SSD drive became available, at a cost of $2,699. Finally, Lenovo is planning to include an SSD option for its new 13.3-inch ThinkPad X300, rumored to be priced at about $2,700 if you buy it from Best Buy.

About the author
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and consultant on high-tech channel communications with SWOT Management Group. She can be reached at hclancy@swotmg.com.


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