Once derided as unviable, enterprise-level flash storage began to pick up steam a few years ago. However, even then, it was deemed too expensive relative to the performance that it provided by most organisations. Now, things are changing; with the technology much more affordable (and higher-performing), an entire ecosystem of flash storage vendors and systems integrators has sprung up. Is now the right time for organisations to make the switch from disk? To understand this, we’ll have to delve into the benefits of flash, and how the technology has been evolving in the Middle Eastern market over the past few years. According to Swapna Subramani, research manager, Systems and Infrastructure Solutions, IDC MEA, the main benefit is to do with speed. And organisations are now taking note because flash storage solutions are more affordable. “Flash technologies are electronically stored NAND-based architectures that permit increased durability, scalability and greater reliability. Traditional storage, on the other hand, is electro-mechanical by function. The biggest advantage of electronic flash storage devices versus the electro-mechanical disk drives is speed,” she says. “Although a very nascent market in the MEA region, traditional storage vendors and pure-play flash vendors are focusing on enterprise flash expansion in the region. There has been a vacuum in anticipated leadership in the enterprise flash market prior to 2012. The key reason for this was the extremely high cost per GB for flash devices, which made it difficult to cater to enterprises with massive data storage needs. However, this market has gained momentum post-2013, with a lot of structural changes in the storage market following OEM deals, licensing and acquisitions. The consolidation and restructuring of the storage market has resulted in flash becoming more affordable at an enterprise mass storage level.” In short, the enterprise flash storage market is open for business, but are IT departments all that bothered? Naturally, vendors of flash storage solutions will explain that, yes, Middle Eastern enterprises are ready to start adopting the technology. After all, from a purely technological standpoint, flash appears to have wide-ranging benefits — particularly if cost is no longer as much of an issue. “Flash storage helps improve the performance of core business applications like databases, it can help achieve big improvements in processing time, reduce server hardware needed, lower database licensing costs, and lead to reduce requirements in terms of floor space and energy usage. Similarly, when it comes to VDI environments, flash provides the ability to accommodate high write workloads and bursts of both read and write activity without a decrease in performance levels,” explains Fadi Kanafani, regional director for the MENA region and Pakistan at NetApp. “Storage performance is critical for enterprises, especially if some of the core business processes such as web analytics, time-critical financial transactions, or actionable analytics are heavily dependent on speed. Enterprises can also observe overall performance gains by replacing performance-limiting disk storage with flash. All-flash arrays substitute solid-state disks (SSDs) for slow, mechanical disks. The results are dramatic for every element of performance. A flash SSD delivers hundreds of times more IOPS than a hard disk drive (HDD) and slashes access latency from milliseconds to microseconds.” Mohammad Dualeh, regional sales manager, Pure Storage, is even more bullish on the benefits of flash, staunchly claiming that CIOs should “only” consider flash storage for their needs going forward. He outlines several plus-points, including improved application performance, flash being more affordable these days, flash being more responsive, better operational simplicity, and better data centre efficiency. “One of the biggest roadblocks to widespread adoption of flash was the cost — traditionally, the price of flash was about $30 to $100 per GB as opposed to the $5 per GB for disk-based storage. As a result, it was only the large companies that could afford flash. However, thanks to the use of consumer grade MLC flash in combination with advanced software to process enterprise workloads, today, flash storage costs about the same if not less than traditional disk storage, making it a viable option for SMEs too,” he says. “One of the greatest benefits of all-flash storage is performance. Flash easily delivers 10 times the performance of hard disk drives, allowing you to accelerate your applications whether that is processing more data transactions per second or dramatically reducing the time required to run batch processes. This in turn leads to increased performance and a competitive advantage for the business. The real advantage of flash storage is consistent sub-millisecond latency, making every application more responsive. So although most IT environments and applications will benefit from an all-flash storage array, it will be those that require high performance and low latency that will see the biggest improvement in their operations.” IT managers and CIOs have taken note of these benefits, simply looking at them from the point of view that general IT operations could be much improved by the use of flash. Indeed, according to Savitha Bhaskar, COO at local systems integrator Condo Protego, the Middle Eastern market is reacting positively to the idea of flash storage. “We’ve recently launched XtremIO [EMC’s all-flash array brand] in the region, and we’re seeing strong demand from very large enterprises that are processing high amounts of data, such as those with tens of thousands of employees or are processing high amounts of video data. Already, organisations in the fields of banking, investment, and finance, hotels and hospitality, and real estate developers have demoed XtremIO here,” she says. However, interest does not always lead to adoption, and while the technical benefits of flash might be well documented, it’s less clear how these technical benefits can lead to real business benefits. Indeed, CIOs might have a tough time making a business case for switching to the (still reasonably costly) option of flash storage. That said, there are ideas that can be put forward when making a business case for flash, according to IDC’s Subramani. “Flash storage devices are particularly suited for environments requiring real-time data storage and retrieval with multiple user interfaces like mobility deployments, VDI implementations, or video surveillance. Flash provides applications with high-performance and low I/O latency. Flash devices also consume comparatively lesser power by functioning electronically and requiring lesser cooling,” she explains. “The enterprise market is expected to be a key beneficiary as the evolution to electronically stored NAND-based flash architectures permits increased durability, scalability and greater reliability. In terms of business benefits, it facilitates an agile and scalable infrastructure.” NetApp’s Kanafani agrees, adding that, for most enterprises, a business case could simply be built around speed. “Business competition demands companies to have high responsiveness from key business operations. Faster time to market translates to greater customer satisfaction and competitive advantage,” he says. “That’s why your forward-looking IT peers increasingly embrace all-flash storage. By speeding performance and reducing latency, flash accelerates business value–driving revenue, enhancing the customer experience, and reducing costs through consolidation.” Condo Protego’s Bhaskar echoes the point about cost, explaining that this could be the main driving force behind flash adoption. She points out that, in comparison to traditional disk-based storage, which manually processes data on magnetic strips, flash storage uses data stored in cells on flash chips for faster data access, and reduced power and cooling. “While many Middle East organisations were initially reluctant to dive in to flash storage, hybrid and flash storage are seeing strong Middle East growth, thanks to the dropping cost of flash storage and increasingly cost-conscious organisations facing higher data workloads,” she says. As a result of this, Subramani explains that IDC expects the Middle Eastern enterprise flash storage market to see healthy growth over the next few years, and that flash will eventually be the default option for many organisations. “Flash is slowly and steadily gaining traction within the enterprise segment. With the decline in the cost per, GB along with enterprises realising the benefits attached to the system, IDC expects flash to grow at a healthy compound annual growth rate through 2020,” she says. “The overall Middle East flash storage space heated up in 2014 and is expected to grow at a double-digit growth rate through 2020. The innovation and interest surrounding it only points to flash eventually becoming the new go-to solution for enterprise storage.” That said, the experts warn that, at the moment, a decision to invest in flash storage shouldn’t be taken lightly. As with any IT investment, costs and benefits must be weighed up — after all, not every enterprise environment will benefit from flash storage. For example, Subramani says that enterprises looking to maintain federated data sources with de-duplication, automatic tiering, archiving, and disaster recovery may still require high-performance, disk-based systems. She points out that flash systems are most suited to time-sensitive storage requirements requiring real-time retrieval and storage at high speed. Even the flash storage vendors issue words of caution when it comes to thinking about adopting flash. Kanafani says that, while he believes flash storage changes the way companies do business by dramatically speeding application performance and improving server efficiency, for the storage architecture to be cost-effective and deliver good performance, there has to be an integrated approach where flash is deployed with other storage options – including cloud and disk arrays. Indeed, such a strategy must be based on a thorough assessment of the enterprise’s needs, as well as consultation with a skilled solutions provider. Condo Protego’s Bhaskar stresses that last point. “Middle East CIOs considering flash storage must present the business benefits to the C-suite, and work with systems integrators to determine how flash storage can be fully phased in to their digital strategies,” she says.
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