SANTA CLARA, Calif.-Enterprise flash memory won’t be able to realize its true business potential-projected to be in the $60 billion market range by 2012-until after history repeats itself.
The history we’re referencing here is that of the disk drive industry, which in the early 1980s went through the same spate of difficulties (lack of standards, an overabundance of competitors, nagging quality-assurance issues) that now await the fast-developing solid-state memory business.
“Customer adoption is the key factor,” Michael Cornwell, Sun Microsystems’ new head of NAND flash business development, told a packed room during the opening panel discussion on “Flash in Enterprise Storage Systems” Aug. 12 at the third annual Flash Memory Summit here. “The five or six largest OEMs will decide what they want to buy in the marketplace, and that’s what the industry will follow.
“We can learn from what the disk drive folks went through. Back in the early ’80s, there were dozens of hard drive makers, all scrambling to see who would win out. Now there are only six major ones left; they’re still making and selling lots of drives, but the main difference now is that shipments are much larger. The customers made their choice then, and the same thing will happen in flash.”
Flash memory is nonvolatile computer memory that can be electrically erased and reprogrammed. About 95 percent of the business now is consumer-oriented, primarily for iPods, cell phones, memory cards and USB flash drives for general storage and transfer of data between computers, cameras and handheld devices.
But that proportion will be changing over time. Industry analysts believe that the remaining 5 percent of the sector, composed mostly of enterprise flash users, has a huge upside, due to its power-saving attributes and fast random-access capabilities.
When Will SSDs Be Ready for Prime?
A candid question from an audience member, which set off a burst of wry laughter across the room, put the discussion into motion. “About when am I not going to lose my job for using flash SSDs in my servers?” the man, an IT manager, asked.
In other words: How long will it take for SSDs to be enterprise battle-tested and seriously ready for prime time?
Panel member Robin Harris of Data Mobility Group, a longtime flash industry analyst and writer of the StorageMojo blog, answered that leading vendors such as EMC and NetApp are going to have to demonstrate much more convincingly that SSDs are a legitimate replacement for HHD (hybrid hard drive)-driven servers and storage arrays.
“Personally, I think SSDs are a terrible replacement for HHDs at this time, for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is that they haven’t been around long enough to know how they really will perform in heavy-duty production situations,” Harris said.
EMC has had optional SSD drives available for its high-end Symmetrix arrays only since March of this year, so the jury is still out on what they can do in heavy load-processing production circumstances.
Analyst Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend, predicted that storage infrastructure giant EMC will have much more cost-effective SSDs in a “few years, and that if they were one-half or one-quarter the cost they are now, there would be a lot more adoption by this point.”
Cornwell, who moved to Sun recently from Apple, agreed with his colleagues that the establishment of clear standards for enterprise business must happen before any large-scale adoption begins to take place.
“Right now, there are about 60 flash vendors and about 17 organizations doing some kind of standards work,” Cornwell said.
“We were sitting down trying to count up the number of standards organizations that are affiliated with flash in some way,” he said. “We came up with 17 that we know of. There are probably more. The Tier 1 OEMs, and that’s only five or six [companies], are going to define what is successful in the market.”
Leading standards groups that influence flash development include SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association), IDEMA (International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association), MMCA (Multimedia Card Association) and the CompactFlash Association.
So will this industry shakeout really take five years or more to develop?
Cornwell said he doesn’t think enough of those Tier 1 companies have come out and said “what their strategies are around SSDs. Sun has, some other vendors have, but the full playing field hasn’t been shown yet.”
The Flash Memory Summit, which continues through Aug. 14, will examine a number of key industry topics, including “How Flash Will Enable Next-Generation Search Engines,” “New Nonvolatile Memory Technologies,” and “Flash Testing and Reliability.”
I will moderate a panel discussion on the flash memory market at 10 a.m. Aug. 14, with panel members Jim Handy (Objective Analysis), Jim McGregor (In-Stat), Alan Niebel (Web-Feet Research), Jim Cantore (JLC Associates) and Jeff Janukowicz (IDC).