infoTECH Feature

March 23, 2015

Making the All-Flash Data Center a Reality, Part 1

As the cost of flash storage continues to drop, the concept of the all-flash data center becomes more realistic. Many organizations are faced with storing not only their legacy data but the huge volumes of data being generated by the Internet of Things as well. Cisco states that almost half a billion mobile devices and connections were added in 2014, raising the total of global mobile devices and connections to 7.4 billion. The company predicts that global mobile data traffic alone will increase nearly tenfold between 2014 and 2019, reaching 24.3 exabytes per month by 2019.

Flash arrived just in time to help storage performance match up to the dramatic rise in compute power that has occurred in the last 20 years. With up to 25 times more input-output operations per second (IOPS) than hard-disk drives (HDDs), flash has the capability to keep applications running at the new speed of business. When time is money, flash is a great solution.

But is it really time for an all-flash data center? Is this truly a viable option? To fully answer these questions, it is instructive to examine traditional HDD approaches to storage, including why these “spinning disks” rose to prominence and the drawbacks that have cast flash in such a good light.

The Evolution of Storage

When flash was introduced, spinning disks continued to march on as the server architecture of choice. Why?  Despite flash’s substantially higher performance, it was just too expensive to consider as a full-fledged alternative to spinning disks. Furthermore, flash was smaller in capacity and unable to hold as much data per unit for the price as spinning disks.

However, progress has made flash more affordable. As the price of flash has dropped, its benefits – including speed in throughput and latency – have dramatically increased at the same time. In addition, flash is a pro at energy efficiency, only consuming a small fraction of the electricity needed to power a spinning disc, sometimes at the ratio of one to 16. And even though flash drives still wear out at a faster rate than do spinning disks, the recent improvements have made flash an increasingly feasible – and desirable – option, even in high-volume environments such as the data center.

The Data Center Gets a Flashy Makeover

A modern data center calls to mind city blocks’ worth of warehouses, housing hundreds of servers. Is it possible that they might one day all be running on flash storage?

It is absolutely possible today, and it is a certainty tomorrow. For major industries whose profit margins depend on the speed and availability they can offer their customers, flash storage’s stratospheric performance is becoming less of a option and more of a straightforward business need. Telcos and service providers – whose business models are extremely sensitive to latency and downtime – are particularly interested in an all-flash data center model.

Though flash offers greater performance, not all industries are equally excited about its possibilities. For example, a file hosting service that delivers free Web storage for consumers isn’t likely to be as concerned about performance as they are with ensuring massive quantities of cheap storage. Today, the tradeoff is between price and capacity. But when the price of flash catches up to the price of spinning disks, there will suddenly be no reason for choosing spinning disks. Just as spinning disks replaced tape storage with its higher power and better value, so too will the market shift to adopt flash as the storage standard.

Part two of this article will discuss how software-defined storage figures into the all-flash data center and the benefits of using these technologies together.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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