Flash to go mainstream in 2017?

Pure Storage has been steadily growing in Asia. According to Michael Cornwell, Chief Technology Officer for Asia Pacific at Pure Storage, the team continues to grow in the region. Singapore remains the regional hub with around 40 staff housing many of the company’s Asia Pacific resources.

A few years ago during a casual encounter with a senior executive at EMC Hong Kong, the subject came to the competitive marketplace. When prodded on the competitor most visible in the radars of the company, the EMC executive named Pure Storage. This is surprising given that historically the usual suspects (competition) would have been Dell (in some product categories), Hitachi/HDS, HPE (formerly HP), IBM and NetApp.

Cornwell candidly alluded to the situation as akin to the story of David versus Goliath.

“We’ve always used the analogy of David and Goliath, the fable of the large behemoth company and the nimble and innovative start up that was able to make a foothold in the market. When we first came to the market 4-5 years ago, now we’ve sort of become that company. There’s a next generation of start-ups that now look to us and use us as that Goliath when they think about storage. So we’ve sort of moved into the mainstream. Being public – since October 7th – so being public for over a year in the public markets,” he expanded.

Year of Flash

Since 2013 market pundits have been predicting the flash storage will take over the data centre. Five years on that prediction has yet to come true. 2017 will be no different. Spending on flash will continue to grow but the technology will not surpass disk both in spending and capacity. One factor limiting the growth of flash is NAND fab capacity.

That said, it is arguable that flash will go mainstream in the enterprise storage space in 2017. The recent announcement of 15TB SSDs alludes to the potential of flash to deliver the capacity needs of the digital-mobile-social era. The commoditisation of 3D NAND will make for compelling price/TB ratio comparable to high capacity disks. In addition, persistent memory technologies are helping improve SSD performance beyond what disks can offer.

The area where HDDs will continue to dominate the market, for the time being, is fulfilling the demand for low-price, high capacity storage. Eventually, however, HDDs will become a niche technology, in much the same way that tape is today relegated to a very specific application and need.

As expected, Cornwell paints a more optimistic picture.

“I think what we saw was an inflection point in the market, we hit the right mix of what customers wanted. When we started the company in 2009, all-flash was really seen as this niche-y thing that people saw as performance play, an alternative to D-RAM. We saw that the price of flash would drop and the mainstream in the market would take off. Over the last 18 – 24 months, we’ve really seen that happen in the market,” he commented.

Price of success

Pondering on the bill of materials (BOM), it is sometimes difficult to explain why flash, a media that has very few components, could cost so much more than HDDs, which consists of platters, actuator assembly, read-write heads, spindle motor, logic boards, housing, etc.

Cornwell attributes the rising acceptance of flash storage in the data partly to price.

“SSDs have been around for years as a medium for storage. But it’s always been this mythical thing that it’ll be great if it was cheap. As the price dropped the adoption grew and what really happened was that the market validated all-flash as the feature technology for mainstream data centres,” he continued.

Asked if, in his view, HDDs will continue to dominate the data centre, his response was: “I think if you look at it from a bit level, then absolutely. But if you look at it as a next generation application, in a lot of those we’re seeing data storage capacity moving to flash. Longer term, you will see people move to flash back-up. So, flash will get used for where tape is, there’s a lot of attributes of the media that make that something that’s very compelling, once the price points get back to you – again it’s always about the price point.”

Primed for performance

Performance remains one of the flash’s chief selling points – partly because it’s all electronics and there are no mechanical or moving parts. Cornwell cites parallel processing technology as another competitive innovation of the pure-silicon technology.

“Flash takes advantage of parallelism. It’s sort of like back in the 2000s when we started having multi – core and multi processes and CPU, and people had to re-write the applications to be multi-threaded instead of single threaded. So if you have a single threaded application and in some cases you might have disk drives having better attributes or better performance than flash.”

“These days, most applications are already multi-threaded and already take advantage of parallelism that flash can offer. So I think that’s one of the things that happened probably mid, last decade/ten years ago we really saw everyone rewrite their applications to take advantage of parallelism in the CPUs, and that in turn has led to using parallelism of what flash does from an IO way,” he explained.

Multi-threaded, multi-contextual applications will dominate the application development focus in the years to come. Cornwell agrees that this digital-first environment plays well to the strength of flash storage.

In explaining the opportunity that lies ahead he noted that “the trend historically that we’ve seen is that BI is one of our greatest applications for flash. Because what you see is that the performance of flash helps people make decisions. So if you look at it in the financial industry, what they’re looking to do is to have results and then be able to make decisions from those results. If you look at how a lot of that has been done historically, it’s around batch processing.”

“So you look at things like Hadoop, you look at data warehousing, you look at how people have used even decisions from systems going twenty years back. It’s all about how do I take that data and batch it, and then find a decision. What flash does is that it makes that decision process happen quicker. So it’s something that we see with a lot of customers and a lot of success is being able to use the parallelism of flash to parallelise that decision making to have things that used to take a day be able to take an hour,” he concluded.

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