Q&A: SSDs in the Enterprise

With increasing demands for faster results, IT is looking for speedier storage options. We explore the options and benefits of SSDs.

Speed is critical to processing increasing amounts of data. Storage is no exception. To learn about the benefits of solid state drives (SSDs), what’s driving their use, and where they are most appropriate and their ease of installation, we turned to Jim Ting, vice president of product marketing and product management at STEC, Inc., a global provider of SSD solutions. He has more than 25 years of product-management and marketing experience in storage, networking, cloud computing and virtualization.

Enterprise Strategies: What's driving the use of SSDs in the enterprise, cloud, and data center?

Jim Ting: There are several reasons why SSDs adoption in the enterprise has reached more than 50 percent of enterprises and shows no sign of slowing -- more I/Os per second, lower average response times, and, in many cases, lower costs.

I/O requirements for server virtualization and databases can push the limits of traditional SANs. Using SSDs as an alternative to overprovisioning SANs with shelves of 15K-RPM SAS drives has become more common. As the price of SSDs drops, the universe of applications where it makes sense to use SSDs naturally increases.

For cloud customers, SSDs makes sense for the same reasons -- plus it’s also a big win in terms of response time. SSDs’ low latency compensates for inherent network latency, and they can make cloud storage seem like you’re using local storage. As SSD prices drop, it just makes the total-cost-of-ownership story better and better. Like any other new technology, the cheaper it gets, the more people find new ways to apply the technology.

What benefits do SSDs provide and are they being used for storage, caching, or both? Are there any drawbacks to their use?

Yes, both. SSDs have been deployed as a cache and the data store in both servers and storage systems. Almost all storage systems today are using SSDs either as a standard or optional feature, it’s become a checkbox item. For servers, IT managers are using it is a data store and as a cache. SSDs are pretty easy to try out.

SAS and SATA SSDs can hot plug into a server. PCIe cards do require a bit more effort but have the edge in terms of latency and single-device performance. The main drawback of using SSD as a cache in the server is write-back cache coherency. It’s also more difficult to use caching in a server cluster environment.

You've said that some enterprises are using consumer SSDs in their data centers. What are the consequences of enterprise systems using consumer SSDs vs. enterprise-ready SSDs?

It’s a myth that all SSDs are the same. What we hear from customers that have tried consumer-grade SSDs is that there are performance and reliability problems. Consumer and enterprise-class SSDs are distinguished from one another in a number of ways -- reliability, consistent performance, endurance, and loss of power protection. Enterprise environments run 24/7, whereas consumers eat and sleep, so their workload isn’t 24/7. I/O from enterprise applications and virtualization all add up in terms of write and read IOPS. Typical consumer applications don’t generate that much I/O. If your enterprise I/O profile is similar to an end-user laptop I/O profile, a consumer SSD might work for you if you can withstand data loss due to power failure.

How easy is it to implement SSDs in the data center? Is it a hardware-only process or does software play a role?

What makes SSDs simple to deploy is that enterprise-class drives are available in the industry’s most-common storage interfaces – SAS, SATA, and PCI Express. This means that IT people can use SSDs in their existing IT servers and storage infrastructures. Furthermore, SSDs don’t generate the same heat as do rotating disks, which reduces the need for cooling.

As for software, yes, IT professionals are looking at using an SSD as a server-side cache for their existing storage. This is why STEC developed its EnhanceIO SSD Cache Software, which can use SSDs from other vendors, not just ours. Caching can provide most of the SSD performance benefit for many applications without a wholesale re-architecting of the data center.

Where are SSDs appropriate? Where are HDDs still a better choice an option?

SSDs are the most cost-effective solution for high-I/O workloads but as SSD prices drop, the definition of “high IO” keeps changing. Certainly if your data center has power, space, and cooling constraints, SSDs are an option. One area in which SDDs have not replaced HDDs is in applications with large sequential writes, but I think this will change as SSD prices drop. HDDs makes sense in a tiered solution, probably as a tape replacement, but I’m sure you’ve seen articles about Web 2.0 companies thinking about using SSDs for photos. Each situation is different so you’ll have to look at the total cost of ownership. As IDC pointed out, look at the cost of outages, IT productivity, etc., and include all the costs.

IDC has estimated significant cost savings per terabyte of data. What factors did it measure, and do you agree with its findings?

IDC published a brief (IDC Business Value Solution Brief, sponsored by STEC, <em>Assessing the Business Value of SSD Integration into Enterprise HDD Storage Architectures</em>) Business Value Solution Brief in May that calculated $2700 savings per TB. It factored in better performance and capacity utilization, lower infrastructure costs from power and rack space, longer product life span, and increased IT staff productivity into its calculation for a typical 1000-employee company. That SSDs are better in terms of performance and power is obvious. The other factors also make sense to me but aren’t readily top of mind when people think about deploying SSDs. We focus on the whiz-bang obvious benefits too quickly but the other issues are just as important.

Where are SSDs headed? Higher capacity, lower cost, greater adoption -- all three?

Yes, yes, and yes. You can anticipate SSDs reaching multiple terabytes. As I mentioned, the cost per gigabyte is dropping steadily, and SSDs are being adopted worldwide at a faster pace than any time in history.

What products or services does STEC offer in the enterprise market?

STEC has leveraged its solid-state experience into a complete line of enterprise-class SSDs. In fact, STEC was the first company to champion SSDs in the enterprise. That includes high-capacity and high-performance SAS, SATA, and PCI Express SSDs, and our EnhanceIO software.

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