The enterprise data storage market is going through a once-in-a-decade transition, now that all the key players – from the biggest incumbents to the smallest startups – have settled on their strategies for deploying flash in the data center.

Over the past six years, I’ve been able to observe the market trends in enterprise data storage, having joined Nimble Storage as the sixth employee (and the first outside engineering) in May 2008. Our vision at Nimble’s inception was that over the next decade, solutions built on a new generation of modern flash architectures would displace the multi-billion dollar product lines that make up the majority of the storage market. Today we remain more convinced than ever.

During that time, flash has had an undeniable impact on the market, with virtually all of the incumbent storage vendors adding flash to their legacy disk-based platforms. The resulting “hybrid” storage solutions have become the de facto storage market. Meanwhile, a number of startups and incumbents have developed (or acquired) a new generation of flash-only arrays.

But now that flash storage products have become mainstream, enterprise IT architects have had time to assess the relative merits of different product and technology approaches. And it’s clear the conversation has now shifted:

  • Customers are quickly learning that products that bolt a flash tier onto a disk-based storage system designed twenty years ago can’t deliver performance and capacity in the real world without significant compromises;
  • Flash-only arrays have generated buzz by appearing to offer higher performance, but despite heroic data reduction efforts remain too costly and impractical for the vast majority of mainstream applications that require a flexible blend of performance and capacity. IT organizations are increasingly constrained on budgets and staffing, and introducing a new silo of storage for high performance, low-capacity workloads adds significant new cost and complexity.

For example, in the hybrid market EMC just announced the newest generation of their entry-level VNXe platform – the VNXe 3200. It adds faster processors, more memory and the VNX2 software stack introduced last year to improve topline specs over the prior generation. This release, like the VNX2 launched last year, still remains a spindle-bound architecture at its core, offering only incremental steps to better leverage flash (e.g. the glacial tiering process used to shoehorn flash in). Fundamental improvements remain out of reach, because like the entire VNX product line, the new VNXe remains hampered by the underlying 20+ year old disk-based file system at its heart.

In contrast, Nimble took a fundamentally different approach. Our CASL architecture leverages multi-core processors and a new data layout that converts random writes into sequential writes. This allows dense, low-cost 7200 RPM disks to consistently perform at SSD speeds, eliminating the need to depend on disk spindles for performance. And CASL’s SSD read cache is much more efficient and responsive than tiered flash. As a result, Nimble typically requires only one-third to one-fifth of the hardware of our competitors to deliver the same or better performance and capacity. Add on highly efficient snapshots and replication, plus the ability to independently (and non-disruptively) scale performance and capacity, and you start to see why we have gained such momentum in the market.

At the other end of the market, EMC introduced its flash-only XtremIO products last November. While the offering claims to deliver predictable latency and hundreds of thousands of IOPS in a scale-out cluster, not only is it too expensive, like other flash-only offerings, it lacks the ability to scale capacity as well as core data protection functionality such as snapshots, and replication required for the mainstream market.

As a result, the industry debate between hybrid and flash-only systems largely comes down to the applications you need to support. Hybrid storage systems are affordable, but typically limited to relatively small amounts of flash. Most also offer less top-line performance than flash-only systems. Flash-only systems claim to deliver high and predictable performance (there are growing questions about even this) but are very costly for mainstream applications and data protection (who can afford to keep snapshots on flash?).

But what if your storage architecture could deliver the performance of flash-only systems and the efficiency and capacity of a hybrid? Stay tuned.