Most enterprise flash is made with a single-level architecture, which is more expensive and not quite as dense as the multilevel flash used in consumer devices such as iPods. Multilevel flash uses different levels of voltage for different bits of data, which allows more densely packed data but requires extra management that reduces real-world performance, Coughlin said. Many observers consider single-level more reliable and less prone to losing capacity over long periods of heavy use.
Major storage vendors such as EMC have been offering flash options since last year. Most get the actual drives from STEC, a solid-state storage manufacturer in Santa Ana, California, and integrate them into their own systems.
In April, EMC introduced Symmetrix V-Max, its first storage platform designed from the start to use SSDs as well as spinning disks. Symmetrix is particularly geared toward high performance, but SSDs are also available on the company's other storage systems.
IBM offers STEC SSDs up to 146GB in its DS8000 Enterprise Disk Array. It also plans to let users integrate SSDs into its SAN Volume Controller appliance, which can manage many different types of storage. Flash should be available for all of IBM's enterprise storage platforms by the end of this year, said Clodoaldo Barrera, chief technology strategist for IBM System Storage.
Hewlett-Packard offers SSDs for its high-end XP storage arrays and midrange EVA (Enterprise Virtual Array), as well as flash cards made by Fusion-io that fit into HP servers. In cases where performance is key, the cost advantage can be significant, according to Kyle Fitze, director of marketing for HP Storage Platforms. Enterprises commonly gang together several lightly loaded, high-speed Fibre Channel hard drives to take advantage of their combined speed, a process called short-stroking. On the EVA, eight 72GB SSDs can outperform 324 Fibre Channel drives, each 300GB with 15,000 RPM speed, Fitze said. What's more, the whole package would typically cost $605,000 with hard drives and $155,000 with SSDs, he said.
SSDs still cost 25 times as much as spinning disks on a per-gigabyte basis, according to IDC analyst Jeff Janukowicz. But the need for performance, capacity utilization and lower power consumption, especially by large-scale cloud operators, should drive enterprise SSD sales up an average of 165 percent per year until 2013, he said. Gartner sees a similar explosion, with sales of 59,000 units last year growing to 281,000 this year.
Some of the biggest cloud service providers may help to drive that growth.
Along with fast access to key pieces of data, Facebook anticipates "tremendous" gains in both reliability and lower power consumption from flash, operations chief Heiliger said. The social-networking company, with more than 200 million users, is highly demanding in its data centers. At the Structure conference, Heiliger criticized server manufacturers for not delivering systems designed from the ground up for power savings, and Intel and AMD for not meeting performance promises on some new chips.
MySpace is interested in using flash to save data-center space while maintaining fast page loads for its users, according to Buckingham. One way MySpace is likely to do that is by replacing short-stroked disks with flash. That technique should enable the company to use a server that's one rack unit (1U) high instead of 2U, which could make a big difference in a company with 60,000 square feet (5,600 square meters) of datacenter space, he said. The company has petabytes of storage, and unlike most enterprises, it has to respond to hundreds of thousands of page requests per second, he said.