IT managers waiting for solid-state drive advances

SNW attendees say costly technology still lacks reliability needed for corporate use

Despite what its backers say are considerable performance advantages over traditional hard-disk drives, solid-state drive technology is still too costly and unreliable for use in large corporate data centers, according to users at Computerworld's Storage Networking World Conference in the US this week.

Several attendees said they have no plans to use the technology until it matures and its vendors can prove the performance promises.

Gregory Gum, engineering specialist for the Ground Systems Dept. at Aerospace Corp. in California, called the reliability of nascent solid-state drives "a bit scary" compared to spinning hard drives that have been around for more than 40 years. With that in mind, Gum said he cannot justify paying more for solid state drives than he does for hard disk drives.

"It's still a niche technology; the cost is expensive and always will be," Gum said. "I don't know if it's ready for what I'm looking for." He predicted that it will take at least five years for solid-state memory to be widely deployed in large organizations.

During a presentation at the conference, Intel senior fellow Rick Coulson oversaw a demonstration aimed at showing the strong performance of solid-state drives. He warned his audience of IT managers to be wary of the new technology's durability and of the different designs used by solid-state vendors. Today, he said that solid-state technology can be best used for applications that require high I/O workloads and throughput.

"You have to have a performance reason for solid state drives for them to make sense," Coulson said. "I wouldn't recommend them if you care about dollars per-gigabyte." However, he added, "If you care about dollars per-unit of performance -- that's different."

Coulson also suggested businesses that rely on high-performance software, such as transactional databases and Web services, could significantly cut down on spending for controllers, switches and power usage by moving to solid-state disks. Citing analyst reports, he estimated that as many as 20% of corporate applications running today could benefit from solid-state technology.

Ed Richard, IT infrastructure engineer for Stiefel Laboratories Inc., said the performance gains promised by solid-state technology backers means little to his firm. "We're not splitting atoms in my company, so that's not a big consideration," remarked Richard. "So am I going to put [a solid-state disk] into a SQL database? Absolutely not."

Responsible for running data center operations for the Coral Gables, Fla.-based pharmaceutical firm, Richard said that he is interested in evaluating how diskless storage could minimize heat disruption, cooling and maintenance costs. Still, he said that the limited storage density of solid state drives would likely need to be addressed before it can compete with the capacity limits of hard drives.

"Our [system capacity] has to scale up to 1 petabyte. How would we ever be able to do that with solid-state drives? I can't imagine the number of [flash] drives you would need to make up for that," noted Richard.

Jeffrey Janukowicz, research manager for IDC, said that he expects corporate users will wait until the second generation of solid state drive devices begin to emerge sometime in 2009 before feeling comfortable with the technology.

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