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This is your father’s storage industry, but not for long

This is your father’s storage industry, but not for long

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Christian Putz, Director, Emerging Markets, Europe, Middle East & Africa at Pure Storage.

Christian Putz, Director, Emerging Markets, Europe, Middle East & Africa at Pure Storage explains how, between the emergence of cloud and flash, none of the storage solutions designed for mechanical disk and the traditional data centre will make the leap to the solid-state cloud. 

Over the past 25 years, mobile phones have been completely rethought, thanks to Moore’s Law and the advent of the world-wide web, touchscreens, and so on. Same was the case with everything in the data centre, with servers and networks getting roughly 1000X faster (thanks again, Dr. Moore) and seismic shifts like virtualisation and network switching

But then there’s storage. Most enterprise storage solutions in use today were designed 20+ years ago. Storage has been stagnant because of mechanical disk. Hard drives do not follow Moore’s Law – yes, they have gotten denser, but not faster. As a result, there has been little impetus to innovate. Until now.

Disruption #1: Flash memory

Over the past decade, flash memory has redefined the consumer technology experience. It is the storage inside your smart phone and is used heavily in modern data centres like those of Google, Apple and Facebook. Flash is not only much faster, but also more reliable, denser and power efficient. It is only a matter of time before flash will supplant hard drives for all hot and warm data. Paraphrasing Jim Gray: as a result of Moore’s Law, flash is disk and disk is tape.

Of course, flash has been used for years as a cache or tier to accelerate disk storage. However, the performance disparity between flash and disk is so great that hybrids of flash and disk perform like disk as the “long” disk operations dominate. To use an analogy, the difference is like that between traveling internationally by jet or ship, and it is pretty hard to plan a business trip if you and your colleagues don’t know which one each will get. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why next-gen hybrid solutions have thus far not done as well as hoped in the enterprise?)

The reason of course that flash was originally limited to a cache/tier was that it was expensive. Back in 2011, the price of consumer-grade multi-level cell (cMLC) flash was about four times higher than the price of a fast hard drive (15K rpm). Today, cMLC costs less than fast disk, the same fast disk that underpins the $24B performance-optimised (a.k.a. “Tier 1”) storage and related software market. Given its advantages in nearly every dimension, it is no wonder that flash has rendered performance hard drives obsolete.

Disruption #2: The cloud

Cloud is a more nebulous concept than all-flash (pun intended), but it is having a similarly disruptive impact on the storage industry. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has simply reset the bar for IT by making it dramatically easier for developers to deploy and scale applications. As a result, all data centres aspire to be cloud-like – to meld together commodity hardware with software and automation that delivers agility, elasticity, resiliency, security and most of all, simplicity (by shedding decades of accumulated complexity in storage and networking).

Generally, the term public cloud is used to refer to Infrastructure/Platform as a Service (IaaS/PaaS) offerings like AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Compute Engine. However, like most, we also include multi-tenant Software as a Service (SaaS) providers like Salesforce and Netsuite, as well as consumer internet giants like Apple and Facebook (B2C SaaS). Keep in mind that the success of public cloud does not mean the world is moving to a handful of data centres. Rather we see public cloud customers investing aggressively in their own cloud infrastructures as a core competency, convinced that they are not only saving money at the scale at which they operate, but also differentiating their products relative to the competition.

That being said, despite the growth of public cloud, private clouds will continue to thrive for a few key reasons:

  • Manufacturers need storage close to the equipment they control;
  • High frequency trading must be executed close to exchanges;
  • Virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI) and other IO-intensive applications need to be close to the users they serve (thereby delivering a user experience that’s better than a laptop with a local SSD);
  • Healthcare providers, financial institutions and federal agencies have additional security constraints that necessitate keeping data in data centres they control;
  • Current application designs may not afford easy migration to the cloud; and so on

So rather than move core workloads to a public cloud, many of these large end users are building their own clouds for the same reasons that SaaS and consumer tech players are.

So what will the storage industry look like in the next few years? Expect even more major shifts in the storage industry going forward. It is high time, for at least the performance storage market, to join servers and networks on a Moore’s Law curve. At the same time, storage must shed the complexity, consulting overhead and unfriendly business practices that have helped make AWS so appealing. Alone, either the transition to flash or the cloud would be profoundly disruptive. Taken together, none of the storage solutions designed for mechanical disk and the traditional data centre will make the leap to the solid-state cloud. Now the competition is on to see which storage solutions will deliver the most compelling business value in all-flash.

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