How Much Longer Until Flash Storage is the Only Storage?

December 12, 2014
108 Views

In terms of trends, few are as clear and popular as flash storage. While other technology trends might be more visible among the general public (think the explosion of mobile devices), the rise of flash storage among enterprises of all sizes has the potential to make just as big of an impact in the world, even if it happens beneath the surface. There’s little question that the trend is growing and looks to continue over the next few years, but the real question revolves around flash storage and the other mainstream storage option: hard disk drives (HDD).

In terms of trends, few are as clear and popular as flash storage. While other technology trends might be more visible among the general public (think the explosion of mobile devices), the rise of flash storage among enterprises of all sizes has the potential to make just as big of an impact in the world, even if it happens beneath the surface. There’s little question that the trend is growing and looks to continue over the next few years, but the real question revolves around flash storage and the other mainstream storage option: hard disk drives (HDD). While HDD remains more widely used, flash storage is quickly gaining ground. The question then becomes, how long do we have to wait before flash storage not only overtakes hard drives but becomes the only game in town? A careful analysis reveals some intriguing answers and possibilities for the future, but one that emphasizes a number of obstacles that still need to be overcome.

First, it’s important to look at why flash storage has become so popular in the first place. One of the main selling points of flash storage or solid-state drives (SSD) is its speed. Compared to hard drives, flash storage has much faster processing power. This is achieved by storing data on rewritable memory cells, which doesn’t require moving parts like hard disk drives and their rotating disks (this also means flash storage is more durable). Increased speed and better performance means apps and programs can launch more quickly. The capabilities of flash storage have become sorely needed in the business world since companies are now dealing with large amounts of information in the form of big data. To properly process and analyze big data, more businesses are turning to flash, which has sped up its adoption.

While it’s clear that flash array storage features a number of advantages in comparison to HDD, these advantages don’t automatically mean it is destined to be the sole storage option in the future. For such a reality to come about, solutions to a number of flash storage problems need to be found. The biggest concern and largest drawback to flash storage is the price tag. Hard drives have been around a long time, which is part of the reason the cost to manufacture them is so low. Flash storage is a more recent technology, and the price to use it can be a major barrier limiting the number of companies that would otherwise gladly adopt it. A cheap hard drive can be purchased for around $0.03 per GB. Flash storage is much more expensive at roughly $0.80 per GB. While that not seem like much, keep in mind that’s about 27 times more expensive. For businesses being run on a tight budget, hard drives seem to be the more practical solution.

Beyond the price, flash storage may also suffer from performance problems down the line. While it’s true that flash storage is faster than HDD, it also has a more limited lifespan. Flash cells can only be rewritten so many times, so the more times a business uses it, the more performance will suffer. New technology has the potential to increase that lifespan, but it’s still a concern that enterprises will have to deal with in some fashion. Another problem is that many applications and systems that have been in use for years were designed with hard drives in mind. Apps and operating systems are starting to be created with SSD as the primary storage option, but more changes to existing programs need to happen before flash storage becomes the dominant storage solution.

So getting back to the original question, when will flash storage be the new king of storage options? Or is such a future even likely? Experts differ on what will happen within the next few years. Some believe that it will be a full decade before flash storage is more widely used than hard drives. Others have said that looking at hard drives and flash storage as competitors is the wrong perspective to have. They say the future lies with not one or the other but rather both used in tandem through hybrid systems. The idea would be to use flash storage for active data that is used frequently, while hard drives would be used for bulk storage and archive purposes. There are also experts who say discussion over which storage option will win out is pointless because within the next decade, better storage technologies like memristors, phase-change memory, and even atomic memory will become more mainstream. However the topic is approached, current advantages featured in flash storage make it an easy choice for enterprises with the resources to use it. For now, the trend of more flash looks like it will continue its impressive growth.