Will the titans of storage decide to flash their bits?
What religion do you suppose the Pope is
The fundamental decision facing most of the online storage industry is whether to use spinning or flashing bits or both. Flashing bit growth, solid state NAND storage, is booming and set to grow strongly. Why aren't Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital, the spinning disk-supplying tri-opoly, as successful with flash drives as OCZ, LSI, Micron, SanDisk, Fusion-io and other flash storage suppliers? How come Toshiba is making more headway than Seagate and Western Digital?
The three spinning disk drive bit storage suppliers face the classic incumbent's dilemma; welcome the new flash technology or fight it. So far they are really welcoming it - Toshiba, offering it a middling welcome - Seagate, which is delivering Pulsar SSDs and also hybrid disk drives, ones with an on-board flash cache, and a guarded, half-hearted welcome - Western Digital, with a niche embedded SSD business; what you might call a bear-hug from one, a handshake from another, and a brief nod of the head from the third.
Overview of the flash industry - this is not an exhaustive list.
There are three disk drive suppliers; Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital. There are four main flash chip suppliers; Samsung, Toshiba, Micron and Hynix; yes, you spotted it; Toshiba is in both groups; it is the bear-hugger. All six of these suppliers make flash drives, that is solid state drives (SSDs) packaged in disk bay sizes with disk type interfaces - FC, SAS and SATA, or PCIe flash cards.
To understand the background to what is happening let's take a whistle-stop tour of the spinning and flashing drive industries and manufacturing operations.
Spinning disk industry
The spinning disk triumvirate manufactures one of the most fabulously complex pieces of electro-mechanical tech in the world and does so to the tune of tens of millions of drives a year. It embodies hi-tech down to a molecular scale, mechanisms that boggle the mind, and firmware performing signal processing and error detection and correcting algorithms of mind-bending complexity at lightning speed.
A drive consists of glass or aluminium platters coated with a recording media layer and spun by an electric motor. A read/write head with semi conductor technology at its tip is mounted on an arm and moves across and above the surfaces of the spinning platters, reading and writing bits. A controller does all the processing needed for this, understanding disk tracks and sectors, decoding and error-correcting read signals and sending./receiving bits to the connected host computer.
Disk drives are made in a set of disparate plants; the platters in one, the reads/write heads in another, the controllers in a third, and assembly and test in a fourth type of plant. Each of these type of plants has a network of component suppliers feeding it. The industry is generally vertically integrated but not to the extent of having single mega-plants with glass, aluminium, and silicon going in one end and disk drives coming out of the other. There are independent head producers, like TDK, and independent platter and electric motor producers. There are also independent controller function producers, such as LSI.
Disk read/write head
This is a difference with the flash drive industry which has a simpler manufacturing model.
Flash threat to disk
Disk drives take time to find data; the head has to go across the disk to the right track and then the disk has to rotate to bring the write section of the track under the read head. A flash drive responds hundreds of time faster than a disk drive but costs a lot more. By storing data on many spindles a disk array can stream data at roughly the same rate as a flash drive but that brings the cost of the disk storage up.
Solid state drives (SSDs) as the choice when the number of IO operations per second (IOPS) is paramount. SSDs can also whup disks in the space, power and cooling stakes, being smaller, needing less electricity and running cooler for a given number of IOPS. The effect if this is being seen in the virtual collapse of the 1.8-inch hard disk drive (HDD) industry, and the encroaching of SSDS into storage arrays to replace fast Fibre Channel and SAS disk drives, the 15,000rpm drives, in high IOPS applications.
SSDs are also being used in thin and light notebook and ultrabook computers because they are, obviously, lighter, start-up and run applications faster, and have a longer battery life. As flash storage becomes cheaper over time the threat will extend to 10,000rpm drives and to desktop PC disk drives. Should a HDD supplier, facing this developing threat, fight the oncoming flash flood or redefine themselves and adopt flash technology, thus cannibalising their own HDD sales?
The problem is fairly long term as there simply isn't enough flash fab capacity to replace shipped HDD capacity and it will take years to build it. This removes some urgency from the situation for the two HDD suppliers lacking flash fabs; Seagate and Western Digital.
Next page: Flash industry from 20,000 feet
The Writing's on the Wall for HDDs
I work for a fairly small outfit so you may have to scale accordingly, but we're already buying far more SSDs than HDDs. In fact, we haven't deployed a single desktop with an HDD since early 2009 and since then we've purchased many dozens of SSDs. In that same time period we bought exactly 7 hard disks. The HDDs we still have which predate 2009 should all be put out of service by the end of next year. This includes disks in our servers. In fact, we only use HDDs for bulk storage (and even that array has an pair of SSDs for caching). 15k rpm drives don't offer any gains over cheaper SSDs for virtualization or even server OS disks (RAID 1 is your friend).
At some point we may need to expand our storage or simply replace the aging NAS array, but that might mean at most another 7 drives or so in the next 5 years. During that same time we will undoubtedly buy many more dozens of SSDs (and maybe even a unit or two of whatever comes next for the graphics workstations). The only thing HDDs have to offer is capacity, and that's honestly irrelevant when project files are kept on a network share. The lowest cost HDD is only about $30 less than an SSD that will get the job done just as well (and several orders of magnitude faster). The accountants here have figured out that the increase in efficancy is well worth that little bit extra (but mabye I'm just lucky on that front). This data is also likely skewed by the fact that we build servers and workstations in-house (I need something to do between tickets after all), so we don't have to pay the eye-watering premiums for SSDs that OEMs are still charging.
How long until average home users have a similar setup with a shared network storage (attached to a router maybe) feeding files as needed to their PC, remote laptop, mobile, or tablet? This means there will still be a market for high capacity HDDs 5 years from now, but SSDs might ship at least 5-10 times as many units. Some say that Flash storage will be threatened by something even better by then, but I haven't seen a convincing demo of any such technology. Let's hope Western Digital has something cooking behind closed doors.
Paris, because she has a lot going on behind closed doors.
Five year's time ?
As the article says, flash production will take many years to build. Until then the price difference alone will ensure storage keeps spinning.
If floppy disks were cheaper than USB sticks, just as fast and larger capacity, we would still be using them.
"NetApp has said it will cache data from its arrays in server flash cache and will need SW to do that."
NetApp has been doing this for a few years, so maybe they have been doing it without software until now.