Imagine There’s No Spinning Disk (It’s Easy If You Try)
November 7, 2016 Alex Woodie
The odds of finding a hard disk drive in your next storage array grows slimmer by the day as the cost of solid state disks continues to drop. The price/performance curve for SSDs has improved so much relative to spinning disk, in fact, that decision makers in IBM‘s storage division see a day when data goes straight from flash to tape as it cools, or what they term “FLAPE.”
“The 15K RPM drives are going away,” Gary Albert, business line executive for IBM Storage, tells IT Jungle. “There’s going to be one more generation [of 15K RPM drives], but we’re not going to qualify it because the cost differential between buying that and buying flash is minimal.”
IBM i shops that use external storage will soon have more SSD options to choose from, Albert says. “Why would anybody buy a spinning disk that has moving parts and is destined to fail, when you can buy something that has no moving parts and is proven to be more reliable, and uses less power?” he asks rhetorically.
Fast 15K RPM drives have been the norm for IBM i shops that need to power transactional applications. These HDDs can be found inside Power Systems servers as DASD and in an array of external storage products from IBM and the one other vendor authorized to sell primary storage products to the IBM i installed base, EMC, which is being bought by Dell.
Sales for IBM’s current all-flash array, dubbed FlashSystems, to IBM i shops are picking up, particularly among members of the Large User Group (LUG), who have gone almost exclusively to external storage, via the DS8000 and Storwize storage arrays, according to IBM.
“It [IBM i] is a slow adopting platforms, just like z is. You have to prove that it’s worth spending the money for,” Albert says. “Because System i is a very disk-intensive workload–it’s very back-end oriented–you have to really show them the value of going to an all-flash array. We have had some big companies start to look at it. They are starting to move more toward flash on System i because they see the benefit.”
Nobody from IBM’s Power Systems group has said anything as bold about getting rid of 15K RPM drives in the servers themselves. There are plenty of IBM i shops that still rely on HDDs to power their applications. But even with DASD, the writing seems to be on the wall, as TPM pointed out in this May article about the mounting benefits of flash compared to 15K RPM disks.
So, what’s driving this change? Jeff Barber, vice president of high storage at IBM Storage, says demand for SSDs is growing due to the popularity of mobile consumer devices, like smart phones and tablets. That growth, in turn, is subsidizing R&D into SSDs at a higher rate than for HDDs, and fundamentally changing the economics of storage for enterprises too.
“All those economic factors drive the big players in media production to simplify their product portfolio,” Barber says. “And when they simplify, it’s going to go the way of flash, because the flash capacity curve is dropping more rapidly–i.e. how many terabytes per square inch–[for flash] than spinning disk.”
However, not everybody is convinced that spinning disk will become totally extinct. Tom Lyon, the chief scientist at DriveScale, which develops scale-out storage systems, sees HDDs hanging around for a while longer.
“As much as everyone likes to bash them, hard drives will remain the only game in town for those with huge on-line capacity requirements,” Lyon says. Hard drives will continue to enjoy at least a 10X cost advantage over SSDs for capacity, he says, if not performance.
Lyons also points out that Seagate, the $11 billion disk drive maker, calculated the five year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for nearline hard drives at 43 percent in a recent financial presentation. “Hardly a dying market,” Lyon says. “Nearline means the capacity optimized drives for cloud and enterprise.”
Cloud storage has become a major force in the wider IT market, although it still occupies a small niche in the uber-conservative IBM i space. Public cloud services like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure keep data online via millions, if not tens of millions, of spinning platters of magnetic material. (It’s also subsidized the business for Seagate and other disk makers.)
However, many of these extreme-scale cloud outfits are moving data from cheap SATA disks to tape, according to IBM’s Barber. “The reality of it is we can sell them tape at roughly one-eighth the cost” of SATA disk, he says. “So the very biggest guys have been moving a lot of workload, without customers knowing, to tape.”
IBM is selling “huge amounts” of tape, he continues. “I know it’s not sexy. I know people think ‘God it’s so boring. It’s so antiquated.’ But tape is always sexy in IT, and there’s nothing that comes close to the price, now and in the future.”
When decision-makers in IBM Storage sit back and ponder what the state of the market will look like in five or six years, they don’t see much spinning disk. “We’re pretty convinced it’s going be something called ‘FLAPE,’ which is flash for primary storage, and for true archive and stuff that hasn’t been accessed in 24 months, it will be tape,” Barber says. “That’s what we’re seeing in the big cloud providers right now.”
Ironically, spinning disk is now set to buy the farm before tape. The folks who first predicted the death of tape in 1996 were wrong, as were the people who said it would die in 2006. Now it’s 2016, and tape seems as strong as ever. In fact, tape seems like the only logical way to store much of the big data that’s flowing off mobile devices, social media, and other sensors connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) that’s of dubious value, but which somebody, someday, might want to analyze.
“We have to continue to support spinning disk for a while further,” Barber says. “The simple fact, though, is disk will disappear. It’s just a question of when.”