A long time ago—at least in technology terms—disk storage was the new kid on the block. In 1980, Seagate introduced groundbreaking technology with the hard-disk drive. The first version of the hard-disk drive (HDD) was capable of storing a mere five megabytes of data and sold for $1,500. Thankfully, the technology quickly evolved and in the process overtook tape storage because of its higher efficiency and lower cost.
Many years later came the introduction of flash storage, also known as solid-state drives (SSDs). When flash storage first came to market, however, it did not take spinning disk’s spot as the server architecture of choice. Despite its higher performance, flash was simply too expensive to replace spinning disks—a similar scenario to the high price point associated with the first Seagate hard-disk drive. Consequently, many data centers remained with HDDs despite the performance benefits of SSDs.
As it’s known to do, history repeated itself, and over the years flash technology steadily dropped in price from roughly $40/GB to less than $1/GB today. Simultaneously, as the price dropped, flash’s core benefits—throughput speed and latency—improved significantly. Flash is also far more energy efficient compared with spinning disks; some SSDs manage to use just one-sixteenth of the energy of a comparable HDD. Despite the faster burnout rate of flash drives, recent improvements mean a flash storage implementation, even in high-volume environments like data centers, is a real possibility. Starting this year, organizations will begin the transition from “spinning disk” to all-flash-based data centers. 2014 marks the beginning of the age of all-flash data centers.
Reimagining the Data Center
It might be difficult to imagine a data center running on all flash drives. The current technology, however, makes it a very real possibility and almost certainly the premier data center architecture of the future. Industries that depend on speed and availability to maintain profit margins are changing their perception of flash storage. The idea is becoming less of a tempting possibility and more of a business necessity.
Despite the benefits that an all-flash data center provides, many industries are holding off on implementation until the cost drops even further. For example, a file-hosting service that delivers free web storage for consumers likely doesn’t care about performance as much delivering large quantities of inexpensive storage. Currently, the tradeoff is capacity versus price. When flash storage finally catches up to the price of spinning disks, there will no longer be a reason to avoid the switch. At that point, SSDs will replace HDDs as the storage method of choice.
Optimizing an All-Flash Data Center
Another storage trend on the rise is software-defined storage. Although it may a bit early to say the two go hand in hand, software-defined storage gives organizations the flexibility they need to implement an all-flash data center.
Data center administrators who find the concept of software-defined storage appealing are typically attracted to one or more of the following benefits:
- Decreased cost: Because software-defined storage separates software from hardware, administrators have the option of selecting less expensive commodity servers. When paired with lightweight, effective software, the use of commodity servers can yield considerable cost savings.
- Elasticity: Software-defined storage provides the freedom to analyze business requirements and select the precise components and software that address a company’s growth goals. Although this method does require more technically trained staff, the flexibility of software-defined storage enables a simpler, less expensive and higher-performing data center for the organization’s needs.
- Future-proof: Budgets, network ecosystems and corporate concerns all change in response to current market demands. Having a vast, rigid storage environment that is locked into infrastructure combinations determined by an external vendor severely restricts the organization’s ability to respond quickly to market demands, much less anticipate them in a practical fashion.
Software-defined storage takes features typically found in the hardware layer and moves them to the software layer. This change does away with many of the redundancies found in the hardware layer. Hardware will always fail at some point regardless of design, and flash storage has an especially high rate of time to failure compared with other methods. In a typical storage setup without RAID cards, disk failure will prompt an error message that affects the end-user’s experience. This problem is often resolved via RAID cards, which can be expensive. With a software-defined approach, these kinds of problems can be fixed and rendered invisible to the user, enhancing ease of use. Furthermore, because software-defined storage is hardware agnostic, it can work on any hardware setup.
Using a software-defined approach to storage architectures also allows organizations to use a single name space across all its storage nodes. Organizations are able to run applications in the storage nodes, thereby converting them into “compustorage” nodes. Consequently, the storage hardware itself doesn’t need to be large or costly to retain high-speed and performance. Instead of building large, expensive installations, an organization can begin with a few commodity servers and scale linearly to maintain optimal performance as the organization grows.
Additional benefits of an all-flash data center using software-defined storage include the following:
- Significant performance improvement because of the ability to use the faster flash technology throughout the data center.
- SSDs deliver a smaller footprint in the data center. Since SSDs are much smaller than spinning disks, they require less space and less real estate to house.
- Lower power consumption means that SSDs reduce running costs, generating far less heat than a spinning disk and requiring less energy for cooling.
- Running more applications on the same hardware, owing to performance gains.
Moving to the Future
Not long ago, spinning disks were a new, novel technology aimed at replacing tape storage by offering better performance at a lower cost. Recently, flash storage has begun to take the place of spinning disks for the same reasons. The day has finally come where SSDs are economically viable. Coupled with flash’s unparalleled performance and low energy usage, it’s increasingly likely that an all-flash data center will become a reality in the very near future. To accelerate the adoption, the introduction of software-defined storage means that organizations can finally take full advantage of all the benefits an all-flash data center has to offer.
About the Author
Stefan Bernbo is the founder and CEO of Compuverde. For 20 years, Stefan has designed and built numerous enterprise-scale data-storage solutions designed to be cost effective for storing huge data sets. From 2004 to 2010 he worked in this field for Storegate, the wide-reaching Internet-based storage solution for consumer and business markets, offering the highest possible availability and scalability requirements. Previously, Stefan has worked with system and software architecture on several projects with Swedish giant Ericsson, the world-leading provider of telecommunications equipment and services to mobile- and fixed-network operators.