Flash is a hot topic, but what is the value of flash in the data centre? Is the price such that adoption in the enterprise will continue at a rapid pace? Or is it still a niche offering, only to be used in edge cases where extreme performance is the primary requirement?

The basis for many IT investment decisions is return on investment (ROI). Traditionally, evaluating the benefit falls into two categories: Financial and non-financial.

To encourage prudent use of corporate money, someone, somewhere will have most likely decided that all projects IT or otherwise may only progress if the payback period is “X months” or less.

New photocopiers, telephone systems and replacement SANs - all stand in the same evaluation line. Essentially offering incremental improvements, they each desperately try to shave reductions to the cost per printed page or cost per gigabyte or whatever the applicable metric may be.

But what would the dynamics of a data centre look like with the introduction of flash-based storage memory? Holding the “hot” or process-critical data on flash (with disk taking a more comfortable role as “the new tape” holding the cold data) yields results that upset the status quo and create the conditions for significant improvements in low-latency data performance while offering compelling ROI. This is not only in terms of work done, but also for those who wish to reduce capital and operational expenses related to real estate, energy usage and software licensing.

ROI by Performance

The performance capability of market leading enterprise flash-based storage memory can offer significant benefits when compared to the legacy of disk. Consider the following examples:

  • A global bank can speed up algorithmic trading to more quickly determine when to buy and sell, increasing volume five-fold based on a pre-programmed set of rules and conditions;
  • An online information company can process 10x the queries per server, per second;
  • A social media company can handle four times the user workload per server;
  • A search engine decreased it database replication timeframe from 6 hours to 12.5 minutes;
  • A movie studio can convert movies to stereoscopic 3-D four times faster than previously possible.

These results are certainly impressive, but are they something that should be reserved for the “super company”?

In fact, I/O constrained CPUs are so widespread that the negative impact is felt across businesses both large and small. The resulting poor performance is either accepted as a necessary evil, or inefficiently battled against with disk sprawl, server sprawl and the associated exponential “tax” of power, cooling, real estate, and software licensing.

Even when addressing the performance and cost issues of just a single application, many companies have experienced the performance and cost benefits of deploying NAND flash for their stock management systems or manufacturing ERP systems.

ROI Beyond Performance

Is ROI just about performance though? Let’s imagine that rather than a specific “killer application” or a hyper-scaled-out environment, the scenario in question revolves around an estate of ten or twenty database servers.

Consolidating that larger workload to be served from a small number of high-performance building blocks that combine modern CPU technology, modest amounts of DRAM, legacy storage and flash-based storage memory has a number of positive benefits.

As the performance density of the data centre dramatically increases, a tipping point forms. The advances in processing power are no longer held back by legacy I/O devices, and so the supportable workload can follow a similar trajectory.

As performance scales cost-effectively, data centre space requirements decrease. Existing assets can be redeployed. SAN disks can be reconfigured for capacity rather than any attempt at performance. Software licensing costs can be reigned in.

Now that the information within the data centre can be manipulated and transformed into something more valuable with such speed, competitive edges can broaden. Customer satisfaction increases with the performance to develop services beyond “basic”. The richness of the resulting services leading to increased top-line revenue. With such deployments, the cost of doing business is dramatically reduced as the data centre becomes more efficient. With clear cut and cost effective benefits, ROI is no longer subject to financial sleight of hand.

Know Your Solution

With the ROI question answered, the next question in evaluation is naturally determining whether all flash-based storage memory performs the same. Can any offering that incorporates storage memory lead to such a transformation of the data centre?

It’s certain that mileage will vary. Location, access primitives, and real world workload capability will all have a part to play in how effective the solution is in accelerating performance density.

Many companies have addressed these questions and are now actively upgrading their data centres. As the gap widens between traditional and legacy data centres, others should carefully consider what solution is right for their needs to ensure they don’t end up too far behind in their competitors’ rear view mirrors.

Posted by Steve Wharton, field engineer at Fusion-io. Follow Steve and Fusion-io on twitter via @fusionioUK.