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Solid-State Disk Reality Check

The storage market continues to be the most dynamic and interesting segment of the IT systems industry. The rate of change is higher in storage than just about any other segment, and every few months there is cool new stuff to talk about. But sometimes we have new widgets coming at us so fast that people forget the big picture.


Recently I have been surprised at some of the more breathless blogs I have seen on the topic of solid-state disk (SSD).  Some observers are predicting the imminent demise of the hard disk drive (HDD).  I think it’s time for a reality check, and a quick history lesson.


Don't get me wrong, I am as excited about solid-state drives as anybody.  At HP we are supporting SSDs in HP 3PAR platforms and our other arrays.  We are also doing advanced development, and we have Memristor on the horizon. There is no question that SSDs are about to have their day.  But it is more likely that HDDs and SSDs will coexist and combine to create new solution opportunities. It is also very likely that the most exciting innovations will not be in the components themselves, but in the development of data services software that can manage these technologies together in a coherent and seamless way.


Each time a major new drive technology has hit the market, we have seen a similar pattern of events. First the components themselves get sorted out, then the interfaces, and then the new drives start to show up in both existing storage platforms and new dedicated storage platforms. For example, when SATA drives arrived, there was a lot of work to bring the initial quality up to levels that would be acceptable to enterprise customers. In the array, interfaces were tweaked so that these drives would be supportable within existing architectures. And then you saw a number of new SATA-only platforms, typically from start vendors. Most of these dedicated set up platforms eventually went away. The long-term winners were not the one trick ponies, but the enterprise class platforms that had the coolest software and did the best job of delivering innovative data services capabilities. We saw new solutions for backup to disk, snapshots, archiving, data retention, compliance, and content management.  Today the leading enterprise storage providers deliver platforms that include Fibre Channel drives, SATA, SAS and SSDs, managed by robust data services software to manage them all together for these applications and many others.


The best of these platforms use software technology to perform a magic trick:  they make the physical drives "disappear."  The presentation of storage to the app is virtualized such that the drives are really just contributors to a service level. For example, 3PAR technology can create hybrid service levels that mix different classes of drives, and also tier across all of the available drive classes in the array. 


Another example is magnetic tape.  I remember back in the 1990's when Mike Ruettgers announced that "tape is dead."  I was a huge Mike Ruettgers fan (still am), but tape is still here.  Certainly as lower cost disk technologies have come to market, the role of tape has changed and the market has gotten smaller.  In particular, backup-to-disk has replaced tape in a lot of places, and a lot of companies that used to develop tape products have left the market.  But interestingly, right now we are seeing a resurgence of tape that is surprising.  As cloud-based content has exploded, there has been a need for low-cost, long-term content storage, and tape deployments for "cold archive" and long-term storage is taking off.  We have seen situations where certain cloud hosting providers have experienced outages (stuff happens...) and restored their data from tape to get back in business.  What is most interesting is the emergence of new file services software technology that for tape that is enabling these solutions.  A key enabler is the LTFS filesystem, an open technology developed in part by HP.  This enables the development of solutions that make automated tape systems an addressable "tier" for long-term storage in ways that make tape invisible to the app or the end user.  The cloud or the app can tier data off to tape such that the physical tape automation hardware is invisible.  This is data services software that makes the physical element "disappear."


The next few years will be exciting.  The delivery of SSDs and SSD-centric hardware platforms is just the tip of the iceberg.  As always with storage, the most interesting work will happen in software.  And HP Storage is all over it...


Tobias Loeffler | ‎01-05-2012 12:51 AM

Thanks Tom! That was truly a great article. Not only informative but at the same time a great outlook how HD and SSD might progress. I like your approach of the co-existence theory and am proud to be an young HP employee at the same time. (I am 22, work for HP in Germany, writing my Bachelor Thesis in the next couple of months) I like the fact that somebody like you - as storage Vice President - takes himself time to write blogs like the one above. Please stay with HP and build a great future of the IT #1. One HP! way to go!


Greetings from Germany!

aarati | ‎01-10-2012 05:51 AM

Good to hear this.Otherwise most of the people are in impression that really "Tape" will be out of sight in some days......

a2251711 | ‎01-24-2012 01:39 PM

Information is quiet cool and informational as future perspective also.

peter pandjddjdj | ‎02-08-2012 03:53 PM

not impressed with this artilcle.  lets go forward and not hold people back with old HDD.   SSD are the way forward, you and other manufacturers want us buyers to buy HDD because they fail more often - any excuse so we can buy new hardware

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