One had only to walk around the vendor show floor at VMworld 2012 to learn that the storage industry is at the forefront of a shakeup as more and more vendors jump on the flash bus to performanceville. In fact, vendors representing pretty much every cross section of the flash storage market were represented.
The three pillars of flash
The flash storage market breaks down in three basic silos.
Server-side flash vendors normally provide a PCI-e card that is installed in a server. Capacity generally ranges from a few hundred gigabytes to the low terabytes.
Hybrid storage systems combine a mix of flash and rotational storage seamlessly integrated into a single unit providing both much improved performance over traditional storage arrays and much lower overall cost than all-flash arrays.
At present, I personally see hybrid systems as a sweet spot for mainstream CIOs with environments that are outgrowing the performance limitations of their existing traditional storage arrays and need an affordable way to add performance without necessarily sacrificing capacity. In general, the cost of entry into hybrid storage is much lower than it is with an all-flash array, although hybrid arrays will not provide the kind of raw performance that can be had with all flash storage.
When it comes to supporting truly massive data sets, huge VDI environments and other tasks where IOPS reigns supreme, nothing will beat an all-flash array. Further, while capacity used to be a primary concern with all-flash arrays due to the relatively low capacity of solid state storage, many storage companies have come up with ways to overcome capacity limitations through creative and powerful deduplication and compression algorithms that can satisfy even significant capacity needs while still providing the best performance.
As the cost of flash media continues to fall, I see this space gaining even more traction than it already has. However, for mainstream CIOs, all-flash arrays currently have high cost-of-entry, although they provide the best performance. The higher cost should not be seen as a negative; for those truly in need of massive IOPS, the cost-per-IOPS of these high-end arrays is low.
Lay of the land
I had the opportunity to speak with a number of the storage companies represented at VMware and gained a great deal of insight into the current state of the market.
First, if the vendors are to be believed, the flash space is currently wide open. Every vendor I spoke with indicated that both sales and growth are very strong. Again, unless this was simply hyperbole, it indicates that the flash market is ripe, and we still have a long way to go before we hit a saturation point. Once we hit that saturation point, we'll begin to see some consolidation in this space.
Second, after speaking with a number of attendees at the show, it’s also clear that customers aren’t seeing a lot of differentiation between the vendors. In fact, more than a few people indicated that the vendors “are all the same.” This tells me that a lot of education still needs to be done in order to help customers understand the differences among the broad categories described above. It also tells me that storage vendors need to do a better job of identifying their unique value propositions in ways that are understandable and compelling to customers. While I remain neutral on the individual vendors themselves, one example of a vendor that is identifying a clear and understandable value proposition is Coraid, which says loud and proud that it provides storage at 65 cents a gig. It’s a simple, understandable, and concrete statement.
Really, some combination of both education about the various options and understanding of the individual players is needed for customers to truly be able to compare options. That’s one aim of the Flash Primer that I developed here at Wikibon and that will be expanded over time.
A CIO primer on solid state storage and the solid state market For more information about the solid state storage market, read Wikibon’s primer, which includes an overview of the technology and a snapshot of today’s market.
Action Item: For CIOs looking at storage choices, I can’t recall a time when there are more options — and more confusion — in the market. That said, with the right research, CIOs can identify a solution that can meet exact use case and budget needs in just about any organization.