While the fallout from last year's Thai floods continues to blight the hard disk drive (HDD) supply chain, the situation appears to have given sales of solid state disks (SSD) a veritable shot in the arm.
According to research from analyst Context, the number of SSD units sold through distribution in western Europe hiked by 46.5 per cent in the 10 weeks after the floods hit in mid-October.
During the same period, spanning weeks 41 to 51 of 2011, the number of HDD units sold through distribution fell by 71.7 per cent.
The figures are hardly surprising given that SSD has been roundly touted by the channel as a viable alternative to HDD since the floods knocked out production of the drives at several vendors' manufacturing plants during week 41 last year.
Gerard Marlow, general manager for business development at storage distributor Hammer, confirmed there has been a marked rise in demand for SSD from the commercial market since the floods hit.
"The rise in price of commercial HDD, because of the product shortages, means that customers have been attracted to SSD alternatives which now have a lower price differential," he explained.
"The increase in demand for enterprise SSDs has been less noticeable compared to enterprise HDDs, because although the price gap has decreased, the difference in price is still too great."
The rise in demand has also prompted a sharp decline in SSD prices, adding to its appeal as an HDD alternative.
Data provided to ChannelWeb by IT product price comparison site Idealo.co.uk shows that the average selling price of 2.5in SSD drives, which are typically used in PCs, dropped at a rate of 75 pence a day between 13 and 31 October 2011.
Between 1 September and 12 October, the price of SSD was decreasing daily by an average of 10.92 pence.
A spokesperson for Idealo said that while unit prices are still falling, the rate of change has returned to pre-flood levels. "The current rate of decline [based on the data collected] between early December and 6 February for SSD prices is around a seventh of the speed it was falling at during the second half of October," they explained.
While the situation in Thailand has undoubtedly bolstered the appeal of SSD, at least in the short term, the technology still has some way to go before it can be considered mainstream.
Paul Grimshaw, managing director of IT repairs firm Totally Techy, said the cost of SSD is still too high for many end users.
"I think 2012 will see SSD come of age [because] we are hearing more end users mentioning and purchasing it. But it is still more for the higher-end customers, such as Apple users wanting to swap out a MacBook Pro HDD for an SSD drive," he said.
"The problems in Thailand have created more price parity, but - as with everything - price is the barrier," he added.
This could change over the next 12 months, explained Debbie Fowler, SSD business development manager at storage vendor Kingston Technology, as the price/performance ratio of flash technology improves.
"Adoption of SSD technology will definitely increase this year, especially in the second half of 2012, which is when we expect prices to be at or very close to the $1-per-GB mark [and when this happens], the mass adoption of SSD will be reached," she said.
However, Alexandre Mesguich, vice president of enterprise research at Context, said big improvements in the capacity of SSD will be needed before it can replace the need for HDD completely.
"I think it will happen eventually, because people already want quicker access to data and better-performing systems," said Mesguich. "At the moment, SSD is a good complementary technology to HDD rather than a full replacement."
This view is shared by Dave Stevinson, sales director at SSD distributor VIP Computers, who said the technology is often used to bolster the performance of people's home PCs.
"In these cases, end users are running their PC's operating system on an SSD drive and using a larger HDD drive to store the rest of their data because they want faster boot-up times," he said.
"This tends to be happening at the ‘geekier' end of the market, though, with gamers wanting high-performance PCs and hobbyists looking for new ways to modify their home computers."
But Fowler insisted this behaviour is becoming increasingly common among mainstream consumers as well.
"In 2011, we saw a steady rise in SSD sales, [which] has primarily been [driven] by tech-savvy consumers, not just enthusiasts," she said.
"The value of adding an SSD to a lagging computer is now
in the thoughts of many mainstream consumers [because] SSD is no longer considered a premium upgrade, but an essential one."
Sam Routledge, solutions director at VAR Softcat, said similar SSD usage patterns are happening at the server level, making it an important inclusion in every storage reseller's kitbag.
"The flooding in Thailand has certainly helped raise awareness of SSD, especially at the PC end of the market," he said. "[At the server end] customers are not demanding it by name, but what they do want are systems that perform better because it is hampering their ability to do business."
In many cases this is because end users have underinvested in IT during the economic downturn, he claimed, and SSD can provide their existing systems with a long overdue performance boost.
"You can get a heavy-duty database application, for example, to run on the SSD drive and then use the HDD to store data they do not need access to as quickly. If you just relied on HDD to get performance improvements, the power and cooling costs would be huge," he added.
Aside from the initial installation, there are other revenue opportunities available on these kinds of projects, claimed Ian Masters, sales director for northern Europe at business continuity vendor Vision Solutions.
For instance, by migrating applications end users want to run on SSD and bundling in disaster recovery tools that can protect the data they store across multiple platforms.
"Introducing replication technologies that work across different storage platforms can reduce the amount of time each migration takes and can open up more consulting revenue [for resellers] in the future," he explained.
"As customers adopt multiple storage platforms, they need to keep their disaster recovery strategy as unified as possible, which means looking at solutions that can cover every type of storage they use."
This is because using storage arrays from several vendors in the same environment can cause interoperability issues.
"[Customers should not] rely on built-in replication technologies that are part of the array itself, because the arrays from different vendors will not talk to
each other. This should provide further long-term consulting and sales opportunities for resellers," added Masters.
Referring back to the PC side of things, the growing hype around the SSD-powered ultrabook form factor should also help SSD shrug off its "niche technology" tag, said VIP's Stevinson.
"Microsoft has indicated that Windows 8 will be extremely SSD friendly, we are seeing a few new entrants to the market on the vendor side of things, and with the price of the products coming down, things are heading in the right direction," he claimed.
"Within five years, SSD will have totally replaced HDD, although this position is not a given as there is significant work required on the cost reduction and reliability of the products."
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