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Mark Ridley, NetApp Regional Director for Africa

Flash has rocketed in popularity for data storage systems in the past two years and is tipped to be an even bigger trend for 2014.

But what is flash, where has it come from and is it a viable alternative to hard disks?

We are witnessing a new golden era in the storage industry as vendors and their customers exploit new technologies and approaches.

Flash technology is already proving to be more than just a disruptor – IDC estimates that the enterprise flash market will grow to $4.5B by 2015.

So, what has triggered this meteoric rise? Vendors are pushing harder than ever to gain competitive advantage by improving the service they provide to customers and by bringing new products to the market. Many have found the answer in the All-Flash Array, a new category of storage system based on flash technology. It has startling performance characteristics that make it faster, smaller and greener:

• Speed: their performance characteristics significantly reduce the delays inherent in a traditional mechanical hard disk environment

• Space: They allow organisations to improve storage utilisation and efficiency without compromising performance

• Green: their energy consumption is miniscule compared to hard disk equivalents

Ultimately, this combination coupled with continuing improvements to reliability, performance and cost mean that flash is set to have a profound impact for businesses. It will allow them to re-evaluate their storage strategy and offers the potential to stop over-provisioning storage and improve the ROI of IT investments.

With many a start-up flash point solution on offer however, the breadth of choice available undoubtedly brings confusion to customers. Question marks also hang over the credibility of these new vendors, will many of them exist in the short to mid-term? Can they really deliver against their claims? What happens to customer support if they’re acquired? Caveat emptor is the reigning phrase.

Flash isn’t simply the purview of start-ups; tier one vendors already use flash in some capacity and some already offer All-Flash Arrays. Designed to meet the various and demanding needs of extreme workloads, from database to high performance computing (HPC) environments, the tier one trump cards are a proven track record, full customer support and an appreciation of storage as a key driver of business’ success. These factors become even more important when you consider that the workloads suited to flash are often customer facing and business critical.

So, what should organisations keep in mind as they’re considering flash?

Look out for features that balance wear and extend usability

Flash storage wears out as you write to it because the cells collect charge that cannot be discharged. Look out for enterprise flash systems that offer ways to balance wear and extend the life of the media, as well as features that proactively monitor the integrity of data.

Focus on ROI for your workloads rather than capacity

The flash pricing drop has been as drastic as its rise in popularity. In 2009, SLC flash cost around $65 per GB. Today, the street price of a GB of eMLC flash is around $8. While that’s impressive, it’s important to remember that the cost of one GB of enterprise class hard disk space is around $0.65. This price difference raises questions about which workloads provide the desired return, ask yourself, do I really need three times my current capacity?

Is flash the best answer for all my workloads?

Have a clear picture of how flash can help your business and shop around.

The flash storage market is still young. Take a thorough look at the current and emerging flash technologies, and take the time to understand the pros and cons of each. Most importantly, begin planning a clear flash storage strategy for your organisation today, taking a step back will help you make the right choices for your business and may well provide an edge over your competitors.

It’s clear that the flash marketplace is a fast-moving and exciting direction for storage. Two years down the line, I expect flash to have increased in dominance. It will have disrupted the tier one enterprise class disk category and redefined how we use mechanical hard disks; hard disks will become de rigueur for capacity applications and flash will power performance. I think it’s unlikely that flash will reach price parity with hard disks anytime soon but in five years, the landscape will be very different. One thing’s for certain however: there’ll never be a dull moment in the storage industry.

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