2012: Storage becomes a celebrity

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — While data storage has always been a necessary building block for technology, it’s rarely garnered as much attention as it has in the past two years. The reason: Corporate and retail consumers are being forced to store greater amounts of data and they need to make that data more useful — and accessible.

“Storage is going to become something everyone wants to know about,” said Steve Wojtowecz, vice president of storage software development at IBM. He pointed to the popularity of digital entertainment — both music and movies — the digitizing of human genome information, and growing storage needs in the healthcare industry. All will focus attention on the need for more and faster-performing storage.

The question people will find themselves asking, according to Wojtowecz, is: “How can I access all of these things or how can I store more or how can I leverage it to do more?”

IBM is developing application-specific storage, which it hopes will reside everywhere, from servers to laptops to smartphones. For example, firmware on a laptop would direct videos to be stored on NAND flash and email to be stored on spinning disk in order to optimize performance.

“Today, you can certainly buy [solid-state drives] and spinning disk in one device,” he said. “Now you’ll see manufacturers start to package offerings for the online gamer, or airplane music listener or power user at work to do email.”

Another example, IBM’s Watson, is already in beta tests with hospitals looking to search electronic medical records and perform data analytics to offer diagnoses and treatment advise to physicians in seconds.

Data analytics running on storage arrays are another way storage will be tailored to specific application needs. Tools such as Apache Hadoop will allow companies to mine data for customer relationship information so that they can more precisely target marketing and advertising efforts.

“I think Hadoop is doing a good job of data mining,” Wojtowecz said. “It’s like if someone said to you, here’s a shovel to dig a hole or here’s a backhoe, I think in the future we’ll have bigger backhoes like Hadoop.”

2012 is the year of SSD

Another storage star this year will be NAND flash. From data centers, where solid state drives (SSDs) sit alongside SAS and SATA hard drives, to NAND flash-based handheld devices, flash memory is proliferating in both corporate and consumer industries.

According to new data from research firm IDC, worldwide solid-state storage industry revenue hit $5 billion in 2011, up 105% from the $2.4 billion mark in 2010. IDC expects the market will expand further in 2012 and beyond.

“2011 was a record year for the worldwide SSD market, with revenue more than doubling year over year due to strong SSD shipment growth in the enterprise and client segments,” said Jeff Janukowicz, an IDC research director. “The increasing use of flash in enterprise solutions, explosive growth of mobile client devices, and lower SSD pricing is creating a perfect storm for increased SSD shipments and revenue over our forecast.”

IDC expects worldwide SSD shipments to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of 51.5% from 2010 to 2015.

All-flash arrays catch up to disk

Vendors such as Nimbus Data Systems and Violin Memory are also challenging traditional primary disk drive storage array vendors with all-flash arrays, claiming they can just about match disk on a price-capacity point and blow them away on performance and total cost of ownership.

Late last year, eBay announced it had purchased a 100TB flash array to replace SAN and NAS storage it had been using in its Quality Assurance Division. “One rack [of SSD storage] is equal to eight or nine racks of something else,” said Michael Craft, eBay’s manager of QA Systems Administration.

Analysts believe the price for a gigabyte of capacity on a flash drive will drop from US$1.56 in 2011 to below US$1 per gigabyte in 2012, a dip likely to spur greater adoption of the technology by PC manufacturers and consumers alike.

The floods that temporarily shut down hard-drive manufacturing facilities in Thailand last year, most notably Western Digital’s, also added to a shift toward solid-state storage, some analysts said.

Evidence of NAND flash’s pervasiveness can be seen in Apple’s acquisition of Anobit Technologies, a maker of NAND flash controllers that increase the reliability and longevity of solid-state storage. Apple is the world’s leading user of NAND flash through its mobile devices, like the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air.

The purchase of Anobit addresses an important issue for Apple: It frees the company from depending on flash component makers such as Samsung and Intel, which lead the market in NAND flash production.

This year, many top vendors are also planning to put their solid-state storage closer to the CPU, and in some cases, put the server CPU closer to the storage.

Dell is already selling PCIe server cards from Fusion-io, and EMC soon plans to announce the availability of its PCIe flash card initiative, dubbed Project Lightning. EMC is expected to sell its own branded flash memory cards from multiple suppliers to server makers and is likely to offer flash memory on blade servers as part of its vBlock offering.

vBlock is a venture with Cisco and VMware, announced in 2011, that integrates Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS) servers and networking switches with EMC storage arrays and VMware virtualization software for public and private cloud services.

PCIe and NAND flash

Wayne Adams, chair of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), is upbeat about the PCIe server cards.

“Now, you have higher speeds and you’re looking at transferring data at line speed between a server’s microprocessor and [flash] cache,” said Adams, who attended a two-hour panel at his association’s Winter Symposium on PCIe-solid state storage standards. “System designers are working with cache and higher speed interconnects like PCIe and changing the equation of how much storage can be put in a box in order to match server computational growth. So you can end up with more efficient storage instead of 100 hard drives with data striped across them.

“It’s all about doing more for less or more in the same foot print,” he added.

EMC President and Chief Operating Officer Pat Gelsinger also believes storage arrays can become application servers, removing the bottleneck that networks can create. The technology would work by running VMware’s vSphere directly on the storage controllers and then using vMotion to migrate VMs from application servers onto the storage array.

Flash-maker Micron also sees merit in allowing multiple servers to access a pool of solid-state storage in order to remove I/O bottlenecks.

It recently announced it is buying Virtensys Ltd., a U.K.-based provider of PCIe-sharing products. Micron plans to use Virtensys’ PCIe virtualization technology to allow data centers to share local solid-state drive (SSD) storage across multiple servers.

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