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SSD Lessons From The iPad

In their latest quarterly filings Apple stated that they have sold over 4.2 million iPads, exceeding most people's expectations. So popular is the iPad that Apple is taking some of the lessons learned on the product and incorporating them into their next generation of notebooks starting with the MacBook Air. One of those lessons is how Apple is integrating Solid State Disk (SSD) into the product line. Enterprise storage manufacturers need to pay attention and learn a lesson.
In their latest quarterly filings Apple stated that they have sold over 4.2 million iPads, exceeding most people's expectations. So popular is the iPad that Apple is taking some of the lessons learned on the product and incorporating them into their next generation of notebooks starting with the MacBook Air. One of those lessons is how Apple is integrating Solid State Disk (SSD) into the product line. Enterprise storage manufacturers need to pay attention and learn a lesson.Apple broke the rules and the form factor when it comes to SSD in laptops. Instead of using a SSD that is in the casing of a disk drive, they use an SSD that looks like a memory module. It is smaller and less expensive yet comes in similar amounts of capacity. As we discuss in our recent article "What is a Memory Array?" this approach makes as much sense for enterprise storage systems as it does for Apple.

Just as is the case in the laptop market, the enterprise storage market can benefit from the space efficiency that a memory module form factor can provide. When it comes to flash memory, the hard disk form factor can waste space. Memory does not have to worry about the vibrational and heat issues that hard disk drives do. With a more memory module like design more memory capacity can be packed into the same space.

The first benefit of the memory module form factor instead of a drive form factor is that cost of a solid state storage system can come down significantly. A measurable portion of the cost of any storage system is the cost of each storage shelf that holds the drives. Memory modules can reduce by a factor of ten or more the number of shelves that would be needed.

Memory modules can also increase reliability and performance of the solid state system by providing contiguous access to a single bank of storage. All SSDs have a garbage collection process that removes old data and prepares cells for new data. The more modules and hence cells that are available the more successful the garbage collection process can be. In addition spare modules can be installed creating a self healing capability if other memory modules fail.

Disk form factor SSDs do have their place though, especially in servers, where there are already available storage slots and there is not going to be a need for more than a couple SSD. In this configuration they are a cost effective way to increase the performance of a specific application or server.

Apple taught the MP3 market a lesson, the mobile phone market a lesson and the mobile computing market a lesson. The SSD lesson is that memory is not a hard disk. Treating it like memory can increase cost efficiencies, reliability and performance. The enterprise storage market would do well to pay attention to how Apple is leveraging SSD and understand how their approach can provide a significant advance forward.

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George Crump is lead analyst of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

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