A Flash Down Memory Lane


Submitted by Gilda Foss, NVMe Promoter, Industry Evangelist, Office of the CTO, NetApp

Flash is here, flash is there, flash is everywhere. The conveniences and tools that enhance our lives, such as taking photos and erasing them or playing digital music on mobile devices, are the direct result of the use of flash storage. For Enterprise and consumers, flash-based SSDs have secured an important role in ultra-thin laptops, high-performance desktop computers, servers and enterprise-scale storage systems and are making our lives more productive.

 A solid-state drive (SSD), also called a flash drive, is a type of storage device that is revolutionizing how consumers use computers. These storage devices are transforming businesses globally. SSDs use a special kind of memory chip with erasable, writeable sections that can hold data even when powered off. Think of them as a much larger relative of the trusted memory stick.  Similar to standard hard drives, an SSD uses a special area on its chips for cache memory. Cache memory can increase processing speeds by holding data that is needed repeatedly and frequently. With the data close at hand in the cache, it does not need to be retrieved from the main storage area each time it is needed.

 SSDs either use cache that is volatile, which is referred to as synchronous dynamic random access memory (SDRAM), or they use non-volatile cache. Similar to computer RAM, SDRAM needs a power source to retain data whereas non-volatile cache retains data even without power. Most flash storage systems are comprised of a memory unit, which is used to store data, and an access controller that manages and controls the storage space on the memory unit.

An SSD has many benefits and advantages over a hard disk drive. For one, since there are no electromechanical parts, seek time doesn’t exist, making the drive very fast. In fact, they are incredibly fast and highly reliable when properly engineered. SSDs characteristically consume about 1/5 of the power and read more than 100x faster than traditional mechanical hard disk drives.

 Data center managers who are looking for ways to address the energy drain represented by hard drives are examining flash storage as a way to achieve green computing objectives. Businesses with I/O-intensive applications have also found flash storage to be effective and economical. As a result, enterprise storage providers, chip-makers, and server manufacturers have all entered the flash storage market.

 Secondly, being sold-state, moving parts do not exist and, as a result, SSDs run much cooler than hard disk drives, and therefore cooling costs automatically decrease. Thirdly, SSDs are lighter than a hard disk drive, and they are completely silent. Silence is golden, isn’t it? Finally, an SSD is more durable. If dropped or pounded, it isn’t as likely to be damaged. Sounds like a win-win-win, right?

 Many people in the industry believe that flash SSDs will eventually replace traditional hard drives. Even today, an SSD can extend the life of a laptop battery, reduce the weight of the system, make it quieter, and increase read performance.

When properly and optimally engineered, SSDs are now at least as reliable as traditional spinning hard drives. SSDs allow your computer to start up in seconds versus minutes. Even the slowest current SSD gives you much improved real-world performance compared to the fastest conventional hard drive, perhaps even 100x faster. This allows for better user productivity, allowing for more work to get done in a fraction of the time. Furthermore, using flash in enterprise storage servers means you can support more users, do more work, and use less power, so it’s no wonder that SSDs have become an important technology for business transactions.

Flash memory is changing the computer business. Adoption of flashed based SSDs at the consumer level are moving upstream faster than many predicted. Furthermore, the improvements in software that make flash easier to manage and protect are proliferating this transformation to gain even more support from forward-looking IT professionals. As flash technology continues to improve in maturity, cost and reliability, it’s likely to show up in more and more places and as a result, the world will be moving a lot faster.

And it’s going to get better. At this time, the cost of SSDs is still higher than that of hard disks, but those costs are decreasing fast. On the technology side, advancements such as NVM Express deliver greater performance, while enabling easier adoption of PCIe based storage. All of this means more productivity and less time waiting.

My life is forever changed (& better) due to the availability and use of flash and there are many that share this sentiment.