Solid state storage: an answer to power problems in data centres?


How long do conventional hard drives have in the data centre? Solid state storage is rapidly growing in stature, and with good reason. It is faster, which is important for video caching, and for other low-latency applications. 

The mechanical hard drive was launched over 50 years ago. Since then, the spinning disks of metal have been a regular feature of the computing landscape. But falling prices in the memory market are leading vendors to experiment with new storage ideas. Solid state storage comes in two main configurations: RAM and Flash. Flash drives are usually based around NAND memory, which is a non-volatile memory that doesn't need power to maintain its data. Flash drives like this are frequently found in the consumer market, and are the most common technology underpinning USB thumb drives. RAM drives typically use DRAM, which is a volatile memory technology, that must be maintained by battery if the power fails, so that the data from the drive can be copied off to another location. DRAM drives are much faster than flash drives, making them particularly useful in low-latency applications. 
Solid state drives are finding their way into consumer devices such as laptop computers, netbooks and tablet devices. However, they are also particularly well suited to the enterprise. Organisations that want to increase the performance of their databases, for example, can use solid state drives to help load data more quickly. They can also carry out more effective RAID striping, and can be used to deliver stored video data more quickly. 
Solid state drives still face an uphill battle in the data centre market. Although they offer higher performance, are silent, and do not require as much power as spinning around hunks of metal in many cases, they are also relatively untested. Customers are understandably concerned about reliability with new technologies, even though hard drives are sometimes prone to physical head crashes or mechanical failure. However, as solid state drives encroach increasingly into the data centre, they will become better understood and more trusted by enterprise customers. 
Where does this leave the hard drive? As solid state drives become more popular, hard drives will still survive. Solid state will be used for computing tasks that require the highest performance, while hard drives will be relegated to lower performance applications, such as the storage and retrieval of email and centralised documents, for example. This will kindle an uptick in the development of software designed to analyse data structures within the enterprise and recommend storage policies. Software to help manage storage policies will also become increasingly important; where there are different levels of storage performance in the data centre, software will be required to help figure out where to put different types of data, on the fly. 
If your enterprise is not already exploring solid state, it may well be worth considering instead of, say, buying more servers to try and increase performance. The capital expenditure may be smaller, and the physical footprint and power consumption may be lower, too. In data centres that are increasingly constrained in terms of power and physical capacity, that can only be a good thing.
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.