Flash memory is starting to be used in equipment that's not necessarily mobile or small, specifically challenging the hard disk drive in PCs and even enterprise servers in the datacenter.
As mobile technology has gained steam, it raised the profile of solid state memory. The use of NAND flash chips in mobile phones and other mobile devices makes sense because of the lower power consumption, lower space requirements, and increased ruggedness of semiconductor memory, even though the chips are least 50 percent per gigabyte more expensive than traditional hard disk drives.
Now that pricing limitation seems to be evaporating. According to market research company IHS, solid state disks (SSDs) will account for more than a third of worldwide PC storage shipments by 2017, about seven times what they are today. SSD shipments in PCs will rise to 227 million units in 2017, compared with 31 million in 2012, while shipments of PC hard disk drives will fall 14 percent, from 475 million in 2012 to 410 million in 2017.
Fang Zhang, analyst for storage systems at IHS, says that ultrabooks and other ultra-thin notebooks are driving the growth of SSDs in PCs today. That market is fairly small. Over the next few years, however, these thin notebooks will use touch-screens and become more appealing to consumers, boosting SSD demand, he predicts. Simultaneously, prices on flash memory will decline, making SSDs more attractive to both PC manufacturers and buyers, he says.
SSDs have also been creeping into the enterprise storage market over the last few years. As processing speeds have increased and the amount of data has grown, the speed of hard-disk-drive access has not kept up. And with growth in big-data and cloud computing skyrocketing, datacenters need faster information processing across the board.
That means that hard disk drive storage has become a major bottleneck in enterprise datacenters. As a result, vendors have integrated SSDs into some enterprise storage systems. But because of its expense, SSDs are used in only a small proportion of applications that require the highest performance Tier 1 storage.
That may be about to change, however. In April, IBM announced that it would invest $1 billion to research, develop, and design flash into its servers, storage systems, and middleware. It also introduced its own all-flash storage appliance. The company thinks enterprise Tier 1 storage should be entirely flash-based, and it is investing big time to make that transition.
"The economics and performance of flash are at a point where the technology can have a revolutionary impact on enterprises, especially for transaction-intensive applications," said Ambuj Goyal, general manager of systems storage in IBM's Systems & Technology Group. "The confluence of Big Data, social, mobile and cloud technologies is creating an environment in the enterprise that demands faster, more efficient, access to business insights, and flash can provide that access quickly."
To prove its point, IBM plans to open a dozen centers of competency around the world. There, customers can see demonstrations of how flash can improve the performance of computing jobs like credit card processing, stock exchange transactions, manufacturing, and order processing systems.
Even as SSDs take over part of the market, however, hard disk drives aren't going away. IHS says hard disk drives will still be much less expensive at higher densities and will still cost less per gigabyte across the board, making them perfect for storage that does not need quick access. Thus, IHS expects hard disk drives to remain the final destination for a majority of digital content.