Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Flash-Based Data Storage is Growing Faster Than Anticipated

EMC, Pure Storage boosted by flash demand

The Cord Blood Registry, used by parents to collect newborn stem cells for future medical treatments, plans to save half a million dollars by improving its storage know-how—not of blood, but digital data.

The registry is moving its data to Pure Storage Inc.'s flash-based storage machines, which stash information on chips instead of hard drives with spinning magnetic disks, helping to analyze customer records 35 percent faster. Money-losing Pure filed for an initial public offering on Wednesday, saying that sales more than quadrupled to $174 million in the fiscal that ended in Janurary. 

"People get their jobs done faster, better," said Paul Meijer, vice president of technical infrastructure at the San Bruno, California-based registry.

EMC Corp., Pure and other suppliers are benefiting from better-than-projected demand from companies embracing flash-based storage as a way to speed up their websites and number-crunching. The market for all-flash systems almost reached $1.6 billion in 2014, two years earlier than IDC had predicted. As a result, the research firm is now projecting 2015 sales of $2.24 billion, up from a previous $1.8 billion. Analysts initially anticipated a slower uptake, but prices have declined more rapidly than projected, while customers are also seeing benefits from faster performance and lower administrative costs. 

"The No. 1 reason why customers are adopting it is because of performance," said Arun Chandrasekaran, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "The second reason is ease of use and management. The products are inherently fast and easy to manage."

Flash storage lets companies compress data more efficiently and remove duplicate copies of files. The machines are also cheaper to manage and replace; they take up less space in data centers, and require less electricity and cooling. While flash-based storage remains more expensive than hard disk-based systems, prices are declining and drawing in more customers.

"The all-flash array market did grow faster than we thought it would," said Eric Burgener, an analyst at IDC. "All the customers I talk to about their all-flash array deployment experiences want to move more workloads to flash."

The history of flash memory dates to 1984, when Toshiba Corp. introduced the technology. The chips, which retain data even when they're powered off, were used in memory cards and other storage media until migrating to wider use in smartphones and tablets. Now, they’re starting to replace hard drives in laptops and computer servers.

"Flash is the future for primary storage," Burgener said. "Cost is the only reason people give for not using it."

Rows of coloured high end data cables are seen feeding into racks of servers in an office data storage centre in London, U.K.
Rows of coloured high end data cables are seen feeding into racks of servers in an office data storage centre in London, U.K.
Photographer: Simon Dawson

While flash-storage sales may be expanding ahead of projections, they remain a fraction of the total $26.5 billion storage market, according to IDC.

Competition also remains fierce. International Business Machines Corp., once the top seller of all-flash systems, is now No. 3. Violin Memory Inc., Nimbus Data Systems Inc. and other startups are no longer among the top-five sellers, while NetApp Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are the fourth- and fifth-biggest providers, according to Gartner.

EMC expects to get $1 billion in sales from all-flash machines this year, its fastest product to exceed that threshold in revenue, said Jeremy Burton, EMC’s president of products and marketing. Although EMC has sold hard-disk based storage since the '80s and remains the No. 1 storage provider, the company bought Israel’s XtremIO in 2012 when the flash-storage startup had no revenue.

Jeremy Burton, executive vice president at EMC Corp., speaks during the Oracle OpenWorld 2012 conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.
Jeremy Burton, executive vice president at EMC Corp., speaks during the Oracle OpenWorld 2012 conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.
Photographer: David Paul Morris

XtremIO introduced its first product 20 months ago and had more than $500 million in sales in 2014, according to Burton. That’s helping to make up for declining demand for some of EMC’s older disk-based products.

"They’ve been very aggressive in getting products out and in sales and marketing," Gartner’s Chandrasekaran said of EMC, IBM and the older storage providers. "Even though the flash systems are replacing their older products, they have been very aggressive in their willingness to do that. They recognize that if they don’t do it, Pure will do it from them.”

Indiana's government is moving a couple of petabytes of data to XtremIO products, according to Paul Baltzell, the state's chief information officer. The state has cut energy costs and physical floor space by 75 percent, and it now takes 15 seconds to set up a virtual machine instead of 5 minutes.

Pure is helping Nielsen Co. generate reports on the TV and music industries in an hour rather than six. The ratings researcher has been able to cut the number of data-storage racks to 5 from 50. Flash-based systems now make up about 50 percent to 60 percent of LinkedIn Corp.'s storage for online systems, said Neil Pinto, vice president of LinkedIn’s production engineering operations.

"Think of it as a large Sub-Zero refrigerator replaced with something that looks more like a microwave," said Scott Dietzen, chief executive officer of Pure, which was valued at more than $3 billion when it raised funds last year. "We tell people: 'We will get you flash and get it to you below cost of disk.'"

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