3 things you need to know to save your IT job: #3 Flash


Image: JD Hancock (cc:by)

The start of this series covered two trends that are having a huge impact on IT: The mega-shifts to cloud computing and to the software-defined data center. Make sure you’re fully prepared for these big shifts in technology that are reshaping today’s enterprise data center.

Today, I’ll talk about the third trend: A fundamental shift in focus within storage systems themselves—moving from spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) to flash.

Mega-shift #3: Move over hard disks, make way for flash

In bygone days, people boosted application performance by throwing more and faster HDDs at the problem. They used techniques like wide striping—i.e., striping across several physical arrays—or other tricks such as short-stroking and defragmentation.

Today, flash has replaced highly-tuned HDDs as the performance tier. And while you may be inclined to trade-in your HDDs for an all-flash data center, the economics of flash vs. HDD and the realities of IT budgets simply won’t allow this. Flash costs are falling, but so is the cost of HDD storage. Meanwhile, the amount of data to be stored continues to rise.

So the new role of the IT worker is to maximize the performance advantages of flash, without breaking the bank. If you’re successful in this transition, both you and your company can reap big rewards.

For starters, here are two ways to consider using flash today:

1. Maximum speed for critical applications: Server flash and all-flash arrays

Failure to deliver performance for top-tier applications has always been a career-limiting move. IT-driven companies such as Facebook are already deploying server-side flash in a big way, to improve application response times.

For the typical IT shop, databases and OLTP are the low-hanging flash fruit. For applications with well-understood working sets and I/O characteristics, server flash and all-flash arrays can make a little flash go a long way.

2. Maximum efficiency for current infrastructure: Hybrid storage arrays

Aside from critical applications, data and IT requirements change faster than the New England weather. To accommodate varying performance loads, hybrid storage arrays combine flash with HDDs in a single rack.

More importantly, they compensate for unpredictable I/O spikes by automatically caching “hot” data to flash. Hybrid arrays are useful for applications with periodic data peaks (e.g., quarterly report generators) or random periods of high data activity (e.g., big data analysis).

During your next tech refresh, consider adding some flash to existing storage arrays. Again, a little flash can go a long way.

Don’t get caught flat-footed during peak load periods

As everyone in IT knows, faster access to data can mean the difference between happy vs. unhappy customers and productive vs. unproductive employees. It can also mean the difference between a glowing and a ho-hum performance review.

At some point, flash storage will be “baked-in” to servers, networks and storage systems by default. But until then, you ’ll be faced with multiple flash options. To discover which work best for you, you’ll need to start asking questions.

Application designers and infrastructure architects will need to better understand application I/O patterns, latency and data-protection requirements. You’ll need to get to know your disk I/O hogs: The users, applications and departments that never seem to have enough speed. Those are the areas you want to address first, to achieve flash-accelerated performance without paying a premium.

Choosing how to implement flash today is similar to the challenge IT faced in the early days of deduplication: Inline, post-process, source, destination, variable, fixed—how did you know which form of dedupe was best for you?  This required a creative skill, just like flash does today: Flash in the server, flash in an array, MLC, SLC, eMLC, flash as cache, storage pools of flash... the possibilities appear endless.

IT is changing: You need to change with it

The world is moving at the speed of data. You need to start moving with it. Flash can help you do it.

If you never thought your IT job was particularly creative, think again. Flash requires creative skills to help transform businesses into speed demons. It can also help turn you into an IT hero.

Previously in this series: cloud computing and the software-defined data center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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