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Solid-state drive prices still hinder adoption

Customers want the space savings and fast speed of solid-state drives, but high SSD prices and lack of widespread testing hurt adoption, VARs say.

For space-saving qualities and speed, it is hard to beat the value proposition of solid-state drives (SSDs) as a corporate storage option, but SSD prices still put off potential buyers.

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SSD prices, compared to traditional storage, are a major hurdle to broader adoption, according to VARs and analysts. Buyers are also loath to trust their most valuable data to a medium that is still relatively untested.

"We all understand that everything moves at the speed of light until it gets to the electronic arm and spinning platter," said Paul Clifford, president of Davenport Group, a storage and data VAR in St. Paul, Minn. "This has always been a huge bottleneck, and nothing takes care of it as quickly as enterprise flash. In the enterprise space, there are a lot more discussions than there used to be about this. Still, it comes down to balancing costs. Every IT decision comes down to the money you have and what you can get for it."

Scott Winslow, principal of Winslow Technology Group, a storage VAR in Boston, said businesses are still hung up on the cost-per-megabyte expense associated with enterprise SSDs. These devices typically use the more expensive sort of single-level cell (SLC) flash memory because of its higher life expectancy and reliability profile than multi-level cell (MLC) formats. Enterprises are also concerned about its minimal track record as a reliable form of enterprise storage, he said. Still, more of Winslow Technology Group's customers are considering proof-of-concept installations and asking its team to put together quotes that include SSD options.

"The way that we see it, you'll have a choice of different media," Winslow said. "You can have15,000 Fibre Channel. You have SATA. You have different uses for each. This is another tier. It all fits into the hierarchical storage management approach. Put the most active data on the fastest drives."

EMC Corp. is credited with sparking interest in enterprise flash drives in mid-2008 when it introduced them as an option to its Symmetrix and CLARiiON storage lines. In March 2009, the company introduced 200 GB and 400 GB options for Symmetrix; they'll be added to CLARiiON and the Celerra line later in 2009.

EMC touts several factors as benefits of these drives, including reduced access time, latency and power consumption. It figures that it would take 30 or more 15,000 RPM Fibre Channel drives to deliver the same performance as one flash drive. As for price, although the cost per megabyte for SSDs in mid-2008 was 30 times more than its nearest alternative, EMC said in March that the cost per megabyte compared with Fibre Channel drives has been reduced by 76% since that time.

Both Davenport Group and Winslow Technology Group say they are beginning to quote solutions including SSDs more frequently from network storage vendor Compellent. The value proposition of Compellent's offering is that it can help businesses automate the sorts of data that are handled by different drive technologies throughout their storage installation.

"The data that is inactive will move into SATA. Solid state will handle the most current data," Clifford said.

Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst for The StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn., said while the price premium for SSDs has shrunk, the manufacturing infrastructure still does not exist for this technology to be priced at the levels that businesses would like. That's why the market will continue to expand slowly and it's why SSDs will carve out a niche in a storage hierarchy that will include many different tiers. After all, the enterprise tape drive was declared dead 20 years ago, and it is still here, Schulz said.

Mark Peters, an analyst with consultancy Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass., said one vendor to watch closely will be STEC Inc., an enterprise SSD supplier that has relationships with EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and several other serious contenders in the enterprise storage market. "STEC has been doing stunningly well. Someone is buying these things somewhere," he said.

In early August, STEC reported second-quarter revenue of $86.4 million, up more than 50% from the year-earlier quarter and up more 35.9% sequentially from the first quarter of 2009.

While the turning point for SSDs likely won't be until after 2010, Peters believes the current economic climate is prompting every business to reevaluate how it makes storage buying decisions.

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