For many years, hard-disk drive (HDD) technology has had a clear run in the market, but a relatively new kid on the block is poised to issue a challenge and one day even nudge it from its dominant position, according to some industry observers.
Solid-state drives (SSD), which are big in high-end computing environments and popular with the military and manufacturing sectors, promise a more rugged, reliable performance because they have no moving parts, and take-up is increasing each year. But it still has quite a journey to make to that all-important stage of widespread adoption.
There are still many barriers preventing the technology from becoming mainstream, the main two being price and capacity.
In turn this leads to an opportunity for resellers willing to take a risk and get in at the early adopter stage, and at the cusp of the upsurge, before prices start to drop and the dreaded commoditisation word comes into play. So, is SSD going to cause an explosion in the market or is it going to fall victim to its own hype?
One firm pioneering the uptake of SSD in the UK is specialist distributor Simms. Alex Tatham, managing director of Simms, has even gone so far as to predict the death of HDD by 2012.
“I am quite confident that HDD will be dead by 2012,” he says. “At the moment SSD is very much aimed at the industrial market where the emphasis is centred around robust data storage. Some of the products, such as flight data recorders, automotive and military applications, are ruggedised .
“SSD is also replacing some older technology particularly tape,” adds Tatham . “SSD is growing in popularity because it is not affected by vibrations, has no moving parts and can bear temperatures better than a tape drive.”
He says the technology is also gaining ground in the OEM space, especially in the low-cost PC and net-book market popular with vendors such as Asus and Acer .
“These devices are really just internet access devices and are ideally suited to SSD,” he says.
Although he admits that the cost per gigabyte for SSD solutions is far higher than HDD, which will be a turn-off for some customers.
“But prices are coming down on a daily basis,” he insists. “Coupled with that is the fact that SSD does not generate much heat or require much cooling and can significantly reduce power consumption. This makes it a far greener product, which is an increasing concern for firms in the era of corporate responsibility and green IT.”
Chanaka Tilladaratne, sales manager for the UK and Ireland at SSD vendor Transcend, agrees that the technology is on the verge of something big.
“A couple of years ago we started as the SSD pioneers of the market and we are the only vendor that can supply a complete product portfolio of industrial flash products.
“When the SSD market started in the UK, it was definitely a niche market. This has grown over the past year, mainly because of projects we are undertaking with public sector organisations such as the Metropolitan Police, NHS Primary Care Trusts and London Underground, because IT managers are realising that SSD is much better than conventional hard drives.”
Tillakaratne also believes SSD will take over from HDD, but concedes that it will take time.
“There are a lot of manufacturers looking to move into this technology,” he says.
“Eventually SSD will take over, but if you look at analyst reports it will be between seven and 10 years before SSD is all over the place. There is no doubt that there is huge hype in the market, and SSD will definitely be the next big thing.”
Future looks bright
IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz, who specialises in the SSD market, says the future looks bright.
“For PCs, the decline in the cost of Nand Flash memory, enabled by multi-level cell technology, will translate into lower price points for SSDs, and will boost adoption,” he says.
“Today, major PC OEMs including Dell, Apple, Lenovo, HP, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, offer SSD-based SKUs not only for specialised rugged and ultra-portable notebooks, but also as an option in various mainstream models.
“IDC forecasts a 76 per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for SSD unit shipments and a 70 per cent CAGR for SSD revenue between 2007 and 2012.”
Janukowicz says the two technologies complement each other, rather than working against each other.
“HDDs have a long history and have been a key enabling factor in the rise and success of the computing market through its ability to provide high capacities, good performance and reliable storage at low prices,” he says.
“However, storage requirements are changing and it is difficult for one storage technology to satisfy every use scenario related to storage. This is where SSD comes into play. It provides better performance, reliability, and power consumption, albeit at a higher price.”
George Purrio, European technical manager at Imation, feels that SSD will slowly start to filter into more of a mainstream role.
“The interest in SSD technology is steadily growing due to its performance and total cost of ownership. With the price and capacity moving in a more favourable direction, this interest will continue to grow in the future.
“We are optimistic about the success of SSD, and acknowledge that as the price drops and capacity develops, this will steadily fuel its acceptance and accelerate its migration into business rather than it remain solely an industrial technology.”
But Richard Walsh, EMEA associate director of Flash marketing at memory giant Samsung, says it is not time to start mourning the demise of HDD just yet.
“At the moment our target is replacement rather than new technology,” he says. “We are targeting existing HDD applications such as desktop and notebook PCs, particularly at the higher end of the market. This is because the business user does not need a lot of data storage
as opposed to consumers who need to store a lot of information such as music and photos.
“The advantages of SSD are speed, power consumption and ruggedness, but the negative side is the price. It is very expensive.”
Walsh offers a comparison of Samsung’s prices 128MB of SSD costs around $600 (£340) compared with HDD, which is just $130 (£74) for a terabyte (TB) of storage.
“This gap will narrow over time,” he says. “But it will not be a dramatic decline. Flash per gigabyte is reducing in price by 30 per cent a year, but the overall price of HDD is falling by 30 per cent a year. So it is going to be a long time before SSD overtakes HDD.”
Margin opportunity with SSD
Rick Dudson, EMEA sales director at Infortrend, says there is a margin opportunity for resellers with SSD technology, but it requires some degree of education before selling.
“SSD certainly has a place in the storage market,” he says. “Resellers who show where it can best be used, and who introduce it early to their customers will stand out. They will make a difference securing new business, increasing sales and improving margin.
“To put this into practice the channel needs to understand where the strengths of SSD technology lie, identify the markets and environments that most need these features, and then target these opportunities.”
Neal Ekker, vice president of marketing at Texas Memory Systems, says the market is definitely big enough for both technologies.
“It is not a correct perspective to view the market as SSD versus HDD. No SSD vendor is suggesting that mechanical hard disks will go away any time soon. Instead, we are offering solution architectures that assume a combined SSD and HDD storage environment where SSD soaks up the application performance requirements and HDD addresses the bulk storage requirements.
“This is great news for resellers because it means they can sell both HDD and SSD. But to do so they must become well informed about SSD to help customers purchase the right storage. The only challenge for resellers will be to understand the various technologies and to successfully advise their customers.”
Matthias Werner, member of the SNIA Europe board of directors, agrees that reseller and end user education is key.
“To date, vendors and resellers have successfully addressed the need for ever-greater storage performance at constant or lower cost, with the development and deployment of new technologies. Today there is much interest in SSD and how it addresses enterprise storage needs, especially when compared with HDD. It is key that both resellers and end users understand where the two technologies fit,” he says.
Werner added that the opportunity to sell both technologies is positive for resellers. “SSD currently offers faster read operations, and an attractive price at consumer level. However, the cost of enterprise-grade SSD is still substa ntially higher than that of HDDs,” he says.
“On the other hand because of its resilience against mechanical shocks, SSD is more suitable than HDD to environments where the storage medium requires physical robustness.
“So there is a place and potential in the enterprise storage hierarchy for that technology, but it is probably safe to assume that SSD will not replace HDD in the enterprise datacentre in the next couple of years. At a time of uncertainty, this is a unique opportunity for the channel to identify the right customers and match them with the correct technology.”
However, not everyone is ready to gush about the benefits of SSD, with a belief that instead of replacing HDD, SSD will sit alongside its older brother and fill a specific gap.
Digital content driving data
Gerard Marlow, disk business development manager at distributor Hammer, said: “There is no disputing that the data storage market has grown over the past two years and is continuing to show strong growth led by an insatiable appetite for digital content. This is driven by the consumer, as well as the corporate user as a result of the move to centralised data storage management and legal compliance issues.
“Coupled with this growth for data storage in all market segments, SSD technology has emerged. Despite the SSD hype, the reality today is that HDD shipments outnumber SSD shipments by 99.9 per cent and SSD has made very little impact, if any, in the HDD space.
“SSD is, and will for the foreseeable future, continue to be a niche technology compared with HDD for several reasons: capacity, price and the fact that SSD has some inherent limitations that HDD manufacturers have overcome after decades of research and development.
However, Marlow does admit there is room in the market for SSD. “The HDD market has grown about 20 per cent in the past year and is set to grow by the same amount in the next year. SSD technology will continue to develop and grow, but not at any significant expense to the HDD manufacturers. HDD and SSD technologies should and will continue to complement each other and
co-exist,” he says.
Hamish Macarthur, chief executive of analyst firm Macarthur Stroud International, says storage needs will continue to double every two years, which opens the gate for another type of storage offering.
“SSD comes in different formats and addresses different markets,” he says. “It offers very high-performance to solutions using RAM-based SSD technology, and non-volatile semi-conductor Nand Flash memory.
“The main benefit of SSD is fast access to storage in systems that are hungry for information and need to serve it very quickly, it fits between expensive system memory and the ubiquitous HDD. We are certainly not seeing the death of the HDD, it is complementary to SSDs.”
Macarthur says HDD will remain the main storage medium, experiencing ongoing pricing pressure to remain competitive.
“SSD will gain a role in high-performance and very high-storage capacity environments,” he says.
It appears that despite some varied views on the role SSD has to play in the future, most industry experts agree that the technology is here to stay and that the margin opportunities are there for the early adopters.
However, how quickly SSD will become mainstream and whether it does cause the demise of HDD is something only time will tell.
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