Q&A with Robert Jenkins, CTO of CloudSigma (www.cloudsigma.com):

Chris MacKinnon (DCP): Why is SSD storage useful in today’s data centers?

Jenkins: A typical enterprise is managing more and more data all the time: according to Gartner, data worldwide is currently growing at a minimum rate of 59 percent annually. Data is so essential to most enterprises’ daily operations that their infrastructures must keep up with heavier workloads or else risk jeopardizing companies’ bottom lines. Enterprise data centers need a solution that satisfies their needs for increasing storage capacities while maintaining optimal performance. Solid State Drive (SSD) storage is part of that solution, helping eliminate storage bottlenecks.

For enterprise data centers, a major obstacle to efficient workload management is the inability of typical magnetic disk storage to handle flurries of Input/Output (I/O) operations caused by spikes in server activity. A highly viable solution to enterprise server strain is the strategic implementation of SSDs to house high-priority data, expand caching, etc. SSDs, which have no moving parts, are a perfect solution for I/O traffic spikes and other strains on server productivity because they help eliminate the potential for traffic bottlenecks. They also excel at random I/O operations that magnetic storage struggles with, making them ideal for databases, for example. SSDs thus create a healthier infrastructure with less risk of downtime, more accessible data, better performance, less CPU wait time and more predictable system performance.

MacKinnon: Why should data center and IT managers care about SSD? How can they benefit from it?

Jenkins: Data center and IT managers need to look into SSD storage as a viable solution to server inefficiency and sluggishness. By investing in SSD, they can expect to achieve a more performance-driven infrastructure that’s better suited to the needs of the modern enterprise. These same benefits hold true for operations in a cloud environment, and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers are realizing the same advantages of investing in SSD as part of a competitive offering for their customers. By placing the most critical data on SSDs, data center managers and public cloud IaaS providers effectively eliminate storage bottlenecks and reduce variable performance in server environments, producing infrastructures far more competent at handling large volumes of information flow.

MacKinnon: Where should SSD storage rank in terms of overall priority in the data center?

Jenkins: The importance of SSD storage is arguably subject to the individual needs of the enterprise. The more data processing needs an organization has, the more it needs a solution like SSD storage. Any organization utilizing databases and other operations requiring low latency random I/O activity will see significant benefits from incorporating SSD storage into their infrastructure architecture. That being said, SSDs are an essential component of an efficient, innovative data center that can keep up with the demands of any enterprise. Nearly all enterprises will benefit from using SSD storage, what varies is the correct trade-off point between SSD and magnetic storage. Similarly, access to SSD capabilities is paramount for an IaaS provider that hopes to provide its customers with the kind of robust public cloud infrastructure that companies demand today.

If enterprise data centers and IaaS providers want to remain relevant in an age of big data, they need to seriously consider incorporating SSDs. With digital data expected to grow 48 percent this year from 2011 according to IDC, premium storage capabilities are all the more important. SSD storage is simply the best way to keep scaling storage solutions while maintaining or enhancing performance levels. SSD is therefore a significant contributor to an enterprise’s competitive edge.

MacKinnon: What are the biggest challenges for data center and IT managers when it comes to SSD storage? How can data center and IT managers overcome those challenges?

Jenkins: The biggest challenge involved with implementing SSD storage is overcoming the cost barrier. In most cases, the high cost of SSDs is mitigated by the increase in performance yielded and the higher levels of competitiveness achieved for the provider. SSD storage should best be viewed as an investment. The short term cost-benefit ratio might not be as obvious as the long term. Regardless, data center managers will notice immediately the performance benefits of SSD, which are then passed on to the enterprise. Without time-wasting bottlenecks and performance lag, companies can complete tasks more efficiently and avoid incurring latency, therefore saving on other resources like CPU and making up the cost. Saved CPU time alone can recover a significant proportion of the higher SSD storage cost. Additionally, the lower power footprint of SSD storage and lower heat emissions reaps further savings for companies managing their own data centers. Ultimately, if an enterprise can better execute its core business operations, then SSD storage is worth the extra expense.

A further consideration is SSD storage lifetime, which previously had been limited. The falling cost and improved management systems on drives means that the cost per GB of write activity on SSD is falling rapidly and is already a fraction of what it cost only one or two years ago.
One effective way for enterprises IT managers to overcome the cost barrier is to seek out IaaS providers who offer SSD capability, rather than trying to maintain in-house hardware with expensive SSDs. IaaS offerings provide the equivalent or better services as in-house hardware, and at a more manageable price point. Turning CAPEX into OPEX is particularly appealing when considering SSD storage options.

Some IT managers are wary about IaaS because they view it as incapable of meeting their hardware demands. However, today’s most cutting edge IaaS providers offer optimal scalability, flexibility and performance, in part thanks to SSD capability.

MacKinnon: What advice can you give to IT and data center managers that have a plethora of similar solutions to choose from?

Jenkins: Some alternative options could include extra standard magnetic disk drives and/or hybrid drives. Standard magnetic disk drives are adequate for lower-priority data storage, and are best implemented in conjunction with SSDs, which are suited for higher-priority data, where instant access is necessary to optimize performance levels. Enterprises who try to manage more data by adding more magnetic drives will face storage sprawl, under- and over-provisioning of resources and a poor cost-benefit ratio. A server system entirely outfitted with magnetic disk drives is simply not prepared to handle the large amounts of data flow that today’s enterprise must manage.

Hybrid drives, which incorporate both a hard drive and flash memory (or in some cases SSD), have not really been implemented on a large scale for enterprise data centers, and with fairly good reason. Primarily, hybrid drives are not especially suited for enterprise-class servers because data retrieval is not optimal; there is a slower data search time with a hybrid drive because its data storage is dynamic, i.e. the data moves around frequently. Hybrid drives are slowly entering the enterprise market, but it remains to be seen whether this technology could be an adequate competitor to pure SSD.

There is currently no better solution for enterprise data centers than to strategically implement both traditional magnetic drives as well as SSDs. This ensures that priority data is accessed quickly and efficiently, thereby creating a performance-driven infrastructure with the highest cost-benefit ratio.

When evaluating any storage solution, a true total cost of ownership (TCO) calculation should be employed. This is particularly true when considering SSD storage where power and cooling savings can be significant. Each enterprise then needs to calculate the commercial benefit of increased performance and the business opportunities that SSD can help them deliver on. Combining the two processes will result in the right mix of SSD and magnetic storage solutions.

When working in a cloud environment, the most effective way to deliver the benefits of SSD storage to an enterprise is via an IaaS provider. This relationship maximizes the benefits for the data center manager, the IaaS provider and ultimately the enterprise IT manager. For data center managers, IaaS delivery ensures that their servers will provide an efficient and effective service for enterprises at a fraction of the cost of in-house hardware. IaaS providers who offer SSD capability therefore have a distinguishing competitive edge in the market. The enterprise IT manager sees both the cost and performance benefit; they no longer have to manage their own expensive in-house hardware, which can be very distracting from the business’ core competencies, and the public cloud-delivered infrastructure service carries with it the benefits achieved through data center SSD implementation, plus the added bonus of high cost-effectiveness. SSD storage is the key solution for IaaS providers who hope to provide the greatest storage and performance capacity on the market today.