Businesses weigh benefits of solid state storage

Whether you are using DRAM-based or Flash-based storage, just how much speed you need?

As solid state storage drive technologies mature and claw their way into enterprise IT systems, businesses will face cost-vs.-benefit decisions over whether the time is right to adopt the new technology.

For many companies, the time to adopt solid state drives will be when the extra speed and performance of solid state over traditional hard disk drives have an impact on a company's bottom line by bringing in more revenue.

That was the message Tuesday from George Crump, principal analyst with Storage Switzerland, who spoke at the Tech Target Storage Decisions conference held in New York.

While solid state storage isn't a new idea -- the practice has been around for almost 10 years -- the higher costs of the storage method are dropping and the performance gains are rising, Crump said.

For businesses that require faster data flow speeds, such as financial institutions and stock transfer businesses, the technology is getting more looks, he said.

Even when a company looks at integrating solid state storage, it then has to decide which solid state storage technology to use -- DRAM-based or Flash-based.

"The debate boils down to how much speed you need," Crump said. DRAM storage is faster, but that's at a cost that's much higher than Flash-based storage. For example, 2TB of Flash-based storage costs about US$180,000, compared to about US$1 million for the same amount of DRAM-based storage. "DRAM is faster, but if Flash does it for you, why spend the extra money?" he asked. In that case, it depends on the needs of the business, he said.

While a traditional hard disk drive can read or write data in four to five milliseconds, with a random I/O speed of 150,000 to 300,000 I/O per second, a DRAM drive can read or write data at a speed of .015 milliseconds, with a random I/O speed of 400,000 I/O per second. A Flash-based storage drive can read or write data in 0.2 milliseconds, with a random I/O read speed of 100,000 I/O per second and a random write speed of 25,000 I/O per second.

For write-intensive software applications, Flash-based storage may not give the required performance compared to DRAM-based storage.

"You have to use them in the right applications ... read-heavy applications," Crump said of Flash storage.

For businesses that use high-performance database applications, DRAM-based storage "can make a big difference for your organization and be worthwhile" due to its extra speed.

Solid state storage will be like server virtualization was five years ago, Crump predicted. Today, server virtualization is more popular as a technology to help businesses cut costs, increase performance and reduce power consumption, he said.

"This will be similar to the virtualization rollout. Most here didn't have it five years ago and now many of you have it."

Several users said they see the benefits of solid state storage although their businesses are not yet jumping on the bandwagon.

Michael McCardle, storage technology manager for New York-based financial services company Oppenheimer & Co. Inc., said that while he doesn't know what the future will dictate, solid state storage isn't on the short list of things his company is looking to do anytime soon.

"A lot of bleeding edge technologies are real nice," McCardle said. "But when you boil it all down, how much of it do you really need?"

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Today, Oppenheimer has the traditional storage technologies that they need, along with the appropriate speed at costs that can be rationalized for some 4,000 users, he said. "It goes back to the needs of the business. If the need doesn't exist, then the interest is minimal."

If the requirements of the business increase, then the issue can be reeavaluated, he said. "The pursestrings are very tight these days," McCardle said. "So until we feel pain ... that will drive the need for a technology refresh," a move to such developing technologies as solid state storage won't happen.

Another user, a systems administrator for a New York-based financial services company who asked that his name not be used because of company policy, said his company has been eyeing solid state storage but hasn't made a decisions on what direction to take.

"My company doesn't like bleeding edge," he said. "They like proven technologies." At the same time, he said, solid state drives will likely be a technology they have to consider.

"Down the road, we're going to look at it hard, think hard and reassess the benefits, which may be many," he said. "Maybe not today or tomorrow, but maybe in a few years. We may not be bleeding edge, but at some point we're going to have to go to it" for what promises to be its greatest advantage -- its speed over existing storage technologies.

"Without speed, we're dead," he said.

Another user, a storage architect for a New York-based publishing company who also asked to remain anonymous because of company policy on talking to the press, agreed, saying the added expenditures for solid state storage systems today wouldn't be worth it for their needs.

"We don't have the applications that necessitate them," he said. "We deal with a different data set compared to the firms that do data analysis. We deal with content creation," which doesn't require ultra-fast data reads and writes that are a hallmark of solid state drive technologies. "We couldn't derive a benefit at the price point that it is at now."

"We look for economy," he said. "We find that second-tier storage (such as Serial ATA drives) is adequate to support even our highest-performing applications."