It’s really not a surprise to IT people in the know that solid-state NAND flash-based storage will soon displace spinning disk drives as the standard in the enterprise data storage industry. It might be a surprise, however, that this changeover is happening as fast as it is, because NAND flash always has represented a higher upfront cost.
But enterprises and their CFOs are starting to looking past short-term issues like those pesky startup costs and instead are gazing at a bigger picture. This is because NAND flash drives are proving themselves to be both performance- and endurance-worthy in production situations–making them a better buy over time than mechanical hard drives.
The flash-based storage market, founded by Toshiba in 1987 and which started getting serious traction in the mid-1990s, became an enterprise reality in late 2008, when EMC started providing SSDs as an option in its storage arrays. Since then the market, with media supplied mostly by Samsung, Toshiba and Micron, has not looked back.
NAND Flash Demand Continues to Rise
Since then, all the major storage players, including EMC, NetApp, Dell, Fujitsu, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, SanDisk, Seagate and others have joined smart new-gen companies such as Kaminario, Fusion-io, Nimble, Nimbus, Skyera, Pure Storage, Violin Memory, Tintri, OCZ, and others to try and quell the high demand. And demand is very high at this time, NAND flash analyst Jim Handy has said.
Two notable news events in late August have put exclamation points on this trend: the $150 million venture capital funding round announced by Pure Storage, which gave it an implied $1 billion valuation; and Violin Memory’s $172.5 million initial public offering filing.
There’s more; news to come in the near future will be keeping NAND flash storage in the forefront, too. Specifically, this involves 3D flash, which is now ramping up in production. One example of this is Samsung’s V-NAND flash memory; this employs an up/down/across structure in which storage modules are stacked vertically, giving a whole new dimension to the popular solid-state medium.
Samsung’s, Toshiba’s and Micron’s 3D NAND flash chips are expected to reach early stage production during 2014-2015, where we’ll see a commercial release in the years to follow, analysts say. The success of 3D NAND will come down to market adoption of new products featuring the flash memory, which will dictate when it is ready to take center stage for commercial-scale production.
Why Flash Storage Is Reaching the Tipping Point Against HDDs
South Korea-based giant Samsung is ahead of the pack in terms of the development of 3D NAND flash memory. The IT device giant has cranked up mass production of 3D NAND flash for both consumer electronics (mostly for netbooks and the hot-selling Android smartphones) and enterprise applications such as embedded NAND storage and SSDs.
Reportedly, Samsung also is ready to turn on (sometime in 2014) a new 12-inch fab plant in Xian, northwestern China, which then will perform much of the 3D NAND production.
Toshiba recently started construction on a new fab plant at its Yokkaichi operations in Japan, with the go date expected in summer 2014. This factory will produce 3D NAND memory, as well as chips based on more advanced node technologies. Toshiba, which is currently sampling 3D NAND flash among its best customers, is expected to reach mass production of 3D NAND flash in 2015, according to industry sources.
Micron the U.S.-based NAND Flash Leader
U.S.-based Micron recently said that the company would start handing out 3D NAND flash samples to customers in the first quarter of next year.
So why has the enterprise market experienced such a change in a relatively short span of time of five years, since SSD options started ramping up in enterprise storage? Simple: The performance and financial numbers are turning the way of solid state.
Back in 2008 and 2009, when the world’s macroeconomy was depressed, enterprises were hesitant to invest in more expensive flash arrays if their HDDs were working well enough. Those HDDs are still working well enough, but now, in many use cases, that 2008-09 “well enough” isn’t good enough for current big-data production use cases that require faster analysis and reporting. Plus, budgets are coming back, and enterprise money execs and boards of directors are realizing that IT must be refreshed in order for businesses to stay competitive.
It also turns out that non-volatile, non-mechanical memory based on NAND flash media has matured to the point where the disks are lasting as long, if not longer, than HDDs, which average less than three years in continuous use. Some flash storage makers are now offering five-year garantees on their disks.
Main Problem, Load-Balancing, Is All But Solved
Having no mechanical movement, thus no mechanical breakdowns, the main difficulty NAND flash storage faced historically was load-balancing, and that problem has all but been solved by new software that utilizes the flash surface to its maximum potential.
“NAND flash has truly permeated our lives; this technology has been a game changer, making the world a different place and making many of the products we use today possible,” said Scott Nelson, vice president of the Memory Business Unit at Toshiba America Electronic Components.
“The cost/performance of NAND flash continues to stand the test of time.”