The six major vendors that make up the oligarchy that dominates enterprise storage are deeply worried. The rise of flash memory has brought with it a bevy of startup vendors, including Pure Storage, XtremIO, Fusion-io, Skyera, Violin Memory and Virident Systems—all of which are gaining market traction pretty quickly.
Most of the major vendors—including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, Dell, EMC and NetApp—have already signaled their intention to vigorously defend their respective storage turfs. But given the fact that flash memory, whether deployed on a server or on an array, is providing orders of magnitude better performance for enterprise applications, and interest in flash technologies is running high.
To forestall competitors, there has been an unusual amount of pre-announcement activity. Most recently, NetApp, after earlier partnering with Fusion I/O to gain access to flash storage on servers, signaled its intention to deliver a flash memory array next year that will be optimized for its OnTap operating system.
“We’re seeing a lot of flash startups in our accounts” said Mark Welke, senior director of product marketing for NetApp. “We see flash growth as a tremendous opportunity.”
The reason for that optimism, said Welke, is that flash startups don’t address classic storage management issues, such as in-line data duplication and compression. At the same time, he said there are high-availability issues relating to how flash memory degrades over time, along with performance issues relating to how Java applications perform garbage collection in flash environments.
Meanwhile, Rod Atkins, senior vice president for the IBM Systems and Technology Group, speaking at the recent IBM PartnerWorld Leadership 2013 conference, told IBM business partners that IBM would be rolling out a series of new offerings later this year that would be based on flash memory technology that IBM gained with its acquisition of Texas Memory Systems. “We’re going to deliver later this year a flash-optimized tiered information structure,” he said.
Conversely, Dell recently announced it is investing in Skyera, a provider of enterprise flash array systems. And to make things more interesting, EMC has bolstered its flash memory offerings with an array that is available in limited quantities. Like NetApp, EMC is also making the case that rather than relying on stand-alone flash memory arrays, channel partners and customers alike will be better off deploying flash memory technologies that can be managed within the context of a unified storage architecture.
“We’re taking a balanced approach,” said Barry Ader, general manager for the EMC Flash Business Unit, “We don’t necessarily think you should force customers to upgrade expensive servers to take advantage of flash memory.”
Among the top storage vendors, however, the most advanced may be Hitachi Data Systems, which announced a controller built-in flash memory followed shortly by a flash storage array last year, and HP, which delivered a flash array based on its 3Par storage platform last year.
What’s not clear at the moment is exactly where the focus on the flash memory battle is going to be. Flash memory arrays can be shared by multiple applications, but flash memory storage on servers can already handle the terabyte requirements of the most demanding applications, and increasingly flash memory on servers will become a shared resource. As a result, there are many who argue that storage is going to be the realm of hard disks that may be configured inside storage arrays that include flash memory for the purpose of caching access to secondary, rather than primary, storage.
To a certain degree, most of the major storage vendors are trying to buy time by freezing the flash market until they can bring their offerings to market. Most of those efforts are going to be dependent on the willingness and ability of solution providers aligned with NetApp, EMC, Dell and IBM to convince customers they should put off today’s performance enhancement gains for tomorrow’s promise of better manageability across flash storage running on both servers and storage systems.