EMC's bold solid-state bet

EMC's recent passion for SSDs is no fly-by-night affair

Judging from the blogosphere's post-EMC World buzz, EMC's recent passion for SSDs (solid state drives) is no fly-by-night affair. In fact, at the event, which I was unable to attend, EMC suggested that by 2010, SSDs could reach price parity with, and eventually replace, FC (fibre channel) drives.

EMC is showing more than a superficial interest in SSD -- quite surprising from a company that doesn't usually jump on new technologies (remember iSCSI or, better yet, RAID 6?) and, instead, waits for other vendors to taste how sharp the cutting edge is.

In SSDs, EMC sees competitive advantage -- enough to break with its wait-and-see tradition. By offering storage solutions with drives 30 times faster than old-fashioned, still expensive FC spinners, EMC hopes to gain share against the competition. You may remember this number because EMC recently suggested in a white paper that 30-to-1 is the performance ratio between its SSDs and high-end spinning drives.

That's quite a performance jolt, but I doubt many customers are longing for such a jump. Many would rather have three times the performance using a tenth of the drives. Not only would such a storage solution be faster, it would dramatically cut down on floor space, not to mention electricity and cooling requirements -- three very expensive resources for most datacenters.

But do SSDs need to be priced on par with FC drives for that hypothetical scenario to work? No. In fact, assuming a 30-to-1 performance ratio and equal controller and enclosure costs, customers would be better off even if SSDs were 10 times more expensive than regular drives.

So why would EMC make such a bold, unrealistic prediction regarding the 2010 price of SSDs? Might it be because of signals from customers that SSDs could attract a larger number of applications than initially expected -- hence have to become much more affordable?

Pliant Technology, a startup that should begin shipping its first SSD by year end, is -- not surprisingly -- in agreement with that vision of SSD taking the center stage of application performance.

CEO Amyl Ahola doesn't mention prices, but that's what he had to say:

We see a hybrid environment where enterprise-level flash technology is used with the applications that require high-performance and disk drives are relegated to what they're best at: very low-cost storage and sequential operations as opposed to random operations. You should begin seeing this environment early next year and it should provide the performance and reliability needed for the enterprise environment.

Don't get me wrong, SSD drives will cost much less, but it will take a minor miracle to reach cost parity with spinning drives by 2010. After all, FC drives still go for a premium, and their price gap compared with other drives is minuscule versus that of SSDs.

Perhaps EMC was trying to impress Wall Street while serving a softball to SSD partners Seagate and STEC. Whatever the reason, even if a slip of the tongue, EMC's statement has brought optimism to a market segment that has been struggling for purchases. In fact, someone is already buying that Kool-Aid.

From my experience, the only thing wrong with SSDs is price. Anything that can help bring the cost down is a welcome novelty. Perhaps if we could persuade other vendors about the promise of SSDs in the enterprise, their price would indeed reduce significantly by 2010.

Which might just be the Machiavellian plan EMC had in mind.

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Mario Apicella

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