Enterprise Flash Storage: It's About More Than Just Speed

Guest author Ed Lee is lead architect for virtualized storage vendor Tintri.

Virtualization and flash memory are disrupting the staid storage industry. First embraced in slick consumer products like the iPod, flash memory is now the new darling of enterprise IT. One reason is speed.  Flash is more than 400 times faster than rotating disks.

The other reasons are virtualization and cloud computing. Combined, these technology trends have strained the capabilities of traditional storage products. Those big metal boxes of enterprise storage, called arrays, were originally designed in the 1980s - before MC Hammer rocked parachute pants. Today’s input/output storage requirements are heavier and far more random than storage designers could have predicted 30 years ago. And with new technology comes new problems. IT systems that once hummed, “Can’t Touch This,” became hung up by traffic jams. With the highly random I/O of modern virtualization, flash trumps even the best spinning disks.

Well, nothing gets venture capitalists writing checks faster than IT managers with large budgets wringing their hands in frustration. So, enter the flash solutions from enterprise storage startups. Even the incumbent dinosaurs are showing some hustle. Just last spring, storage industry giant EMC's dropped an impressive $400 million to snap up XtremIO, a three-year-old flash company that has yet to ring up a single sale.

Too Much Flash?

So has flash been over-hyped? Yes, of course it has. Most promising new technologies are overhyped, but the best survive the disappointment that is sure to follow. The problem with most of the flash crowd is that they tout it as a cure-all for IT's performance woes – like a magic medicine show, it puts the performance back in your data center. But it's not magic. It does one thing really well - it eliminates contention for disk spindles. But flash by itself does nothing to ease storage management burdens, and in fact may actually contribute to increased infrastructure complexity. 

Like all new technologies, flash-based storage systems need to be designed into complete solutions rather than just point products.   

Speed Isn't Enough

Today, flash is central to nearly every next-generation storage solution coming to market. But smart IT managers know that speed alone doesn’t solve all of their storage problems, especially in a world of virtualization and cloud computing. In fact, flash-based vendors that offer systems that simplify storage management provide a much greater boost to IT performance than just making I/Os go faster.

Like many incremental improvements in component technologies – even order of magnitude performance boosts like flash – are too often hijacked by legacy vendors to create incrementally smaller and faster versions of the same old products. Don’t be blinded by flash. It’s cool, but it needs to be integrated with new approaches to building complete solutions.

Expect the enterprise storage conversation, pushed by the new demands of virtualization and cloud computing, to move beyond flash. It’s not just about the speed; it's about the solution.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.