The Evolution of Storage – 2012 Isn't Just the Year of the Dragon

2012 is quickly shaping up to be an exciting year in a variety of technology verticals. Just last week NVIDIA® announced a new production release of their CUDA computing toolkit, accelerating GPU computing. Meanwhile, everyone is excitedly awaiting the launch of the new Intel products shipping towards the end of Q1.

But of all the areas in tech innovation, storage may be the one to set itself apart this year. Yesterday Computerworld ran a very thorough and informative piece titled “2012: The year storage becomes a celebrity,” in which they laid out some of the things to look forward to in the development of enterprise storage this year.

The Overview

While data storage has always been a necessary building block for technology, it’s rarely garnered as much attention as it has in the past two years. The reason: Corporate and retail consumers are being forced to store greater amounts of data and they need to make that data more useful — and accessible.

Enterprise storage, and storage in general, is one of those things that trends dictate will get increasingly cheaper. That doesn’t always mean that it will become more accessible, as storage needs may outpace dropping costs. However, in general storage has become more and more affordable, making a big difference to smaller and even mid-sized organizations. It’s also something that is shared across all industries almost without exception. Storage is not just an “IT” issue, but rather plays a critical role in healthcare, entertainment, finance, engineering, etc.

And ten years ago, we did not have the wide variety of options we do today…

The Rise of the SSD

One of the most closely-watched storage technologies has been the solid-state drive. When hard disk production suffered a tremendous blow from the flooding in Thailand last November, some analysts saw this as a turning point in favor of widespread SSD adoption. While the last few months have not given rise to a solid-state revolution, across-the-board price increases in hard drives made SSDs considerably more attractive as an alternative option.

It is also important to note that, while SSDs remain more expensive than HDDs, historical price trends show that their prices have fallen relatively more quickly than their hard disk counterparts.

Graph showing solid-state drive prices falling faster than hard drives

According to new data from research firm IDC, worldwide solid-state storage industry revenue hit $5 billion in 2011, up 105% from the $2.4 billion mark in 2010. IDC expects the market will expand further in 2012 and beyond.

“2011 was a record year for the worldwide SSD market, with revenue more than doubling year over year due to strong SSD shipment growth in the enterprise and client segments,” said Jeff Janukowicz, an IDC research director. “The increasing use of flash in enterprise solutions, explosive growth of mobile client devices, and lower SSD pricing is creating a perfect storm for increased SSD shipments and revenue over our forecast.”

The Computerworld article also notes that combining these technologies together opens up possibilities that do not exist with only the traditional spinning disks. We can attest to that, as we have seen some very interesting applications done with this combination.

  • Quickly making on-the-fly disk images & full copies is significantly easier than spinning drives unless they are also paired with a very efficient RAID configuration (minimum RAID 5).
  • Utilizing SSDs as boot drives can greatly speed up a shared system such as a virtual private server.
  • SSDs can be useful as a replication point in a MySQL dump.
  • SSDs can help with caching files in a system with spinning disks, boosting performance across the entire system

The bottom line is that we now are seeing how SSDs can be used (separately and/or in conjunction with hard drives) to achieve distinct goals in a more efficient manner, rather than just using them as spinning-disk replacements.

The Future of PCIe in Storage

The other big trend is the use of PCIe technology in storage.

Dell is already selling PCIe server cards from Fusion-io, and EMC soon plans to announce the availability of its PCIe flash card initiative, dubbed Project Lightning. EMC is expected to sell its own branded flash memory cards from multiple suppliers to server makers and is likely to offer flash memory on blade servers as part of its vBlock offering.

Wayne Adams, chair of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), is upbeat about the PCIe server cards.

“Now, you have higher speeds and you’re looking at transferring data at line speed between a server’s microprocessor and [flash] cache,” said Adams, who attended a two-hour panel at his association’s Winter Symposium on PCIe-solid state storage standards. “System designers are working with cache and higher speed interconnects like PCIe and changing the equation of how much storage can be put in a box in order to match server computational growth. So you can end up with more efficient storage instead of 100 hard drives with data striped across them.

“It’s all about doing more for less or more in the same foot print,” he added.

To-date, most of the use of flash memory in data center computing has been for specialized applications and use in hybrid systems. The traditional barrier is price. But as the cost handicap begins to fade the benefits of faster data access and retreival, not to mention the savings from power and storage space efficiency, such technology is becoming more and more attractive.

PCIe-based SSDs and other forms of flash memory incorporate these benefits into robust solutions for enterprise, academia, and SMB. Within this line of development, the term storage class memory emerged a couple years ago to designate high-performance memory that has the capacity and economics of storage.

While many flash-based storage devices can offer compelling economics compared to DRAM, storage class memory specifically aims to provide near-RAM performance, while also attempting to minimize I/O bottleneck issues that can arise from traditional storage connection protocols such as SATA or SAS.

Two of the leading storage class memory products on the market are Virident’s FlashMax and LSI’s WarpDrive. Both offer incredible performance compared to even some of the standards of today. They are indicative of the future trends of storage.

Next on the Horizon for Storage?

Infographic outlining the future development of storage

Created by IBM

These are the biggest developing trends in the field of enterprise storage. But whatever specific technologies that emerge as dominant, the challenges of storage are shared by all. With an ever-growing amount of new data and analytical tools, storage evolution must be able to keep up with our data-collection, data-management, and data-crunching needs.

Storage is an essential aspect of high performance computing, a field in which big data represents a tremendous growth opportunity. To learn more, read our article “Future Trends in HPC, Part 2.”

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