Q&A: As prices fall, flash memory is eating the world

SanDisk's top strategy guru talks about the expanding role of flash in the enterprise and how emerging storage techs like 3D NAND will change the future

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Western Digital in October announced plans to acquire SanDisk for some $19 billion in a deal that -- once finalized -- will marry leaders in the traditional hard drive and the emerging flash memory markets. Sumit Sadana, SanDisk's chief strategy officer and general manager of its Enterprise Solutions unit, spoke recently with IDG Chief Content Officer John Gallant to share insights on the merger and to explore the evolving role of flash in corporate data centers.

Sadana says SanDisk has driven the pricetag of flash below a dollar per gigabyte and, with compression and dedupe, flash costs are now only 20 cents per gig. He also discussed the emergence of so-called storage-class memory (a new tier in the traditional memory architecture) and SanDisk's work developing 3D NAND. Sadana also talked about how flash will help customers capture the real promise of big data and the Internet of things, and how they'll need to be prepared for even more buyouts and mergers in the storage market.

I know you can't get into specifics about the Western Digital deal and where that stands. But can you tell me, from a positioning perspective, why undertake this merger? How will it benefit customers?

The merger gives us an opportunity to create a company like no other company out there. It will have the broadest array of storage solutions for customers. As you know, there is a huge amount of growth happening in data all around us, be it in data analytics, the world powered by data intelligence and IoT, cloud computing growth, etc. And that is a world where you don't need only one type of solution. You need both flash and hard disk drive. [Western Digital] brings world-class capability in hard drives, and SanDisk is a leader on the flash side, so putting these two companies together would allow our customers to have a one-stop shop for some of the most cutting-edge solutions in the world.

This also gives us the opportunity to come up with new, innovative solutions that break new ground. One example: On the SanDisk side we have come up with this better byte-scale computing platform called InfiniFlash. These are the types of things we can take to the next level. We can think more broadly and include all kinds of storage technologies, not just flash, within the system.

What are the big trends that you're seeing develop in the enterprise data center and how are you responding to them?

The enterprise data center is going through more changes than it has seen in probably two decades. The rate and pace of change has accelerated a lot. Cloud computing has demonstrated a level of scale and capability and thinking of computing as a platform, as a utility. We're now talking about networking and storage being virtualized and disaggregated.

These trends are causing companies to think about their own data centers in new and different ways. Certainly one trend for data centers and companies who have large-scale IT requirements is to first and foremost think about how they can leverage the public cloud. But a lot of companies have mission-critical applications they want to keep in-house because they are concerned about security, privacy and just having data within the four walls of their own company.

In those situations, certainly they are trying to adopt technologies that cloud computing companies have been making more popular. You think about driving virtualization into more and more workloads. You think about disaggregation of compute and storage where you can have a large amount of storage talk directly to multiple servers and make that a much more efficient model.

You also look at trends that are accelerating open-source adoption. Cloud computing companies are very aggressively adopting lower-cost hardware platforms as well as open-source software and technology. The growth of open source, even in enterprise-grade data centers and Fortune 1000 companies, is another important trend that will keep growing.

One important trend that I will end with -- that is particularly important for SanDisk -- is the trend towards greater flash adoption and the advent of better byte-scale storage with flash as your primary storage. That is taking over more and more workloads. As the cost of flash keeps going down, more and more workloads will use flash as primary storage, not just as caching, and that is going to be transformational to data centers.

What are you seeing in the adoption rate of flash in the data center?

Companies that are very heavily focused on building a resilient infrastructure and who understand their infrastructure very, very deeply -- companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft Azure as well as cloud computing companies like Amazon Web Services, IBM SoftLayer, companies that use very large-scale IT capabilities, eBay, PayPal -- have realized that the best way to reduce cost in the data centers is to aggressively adopt flash.

The reason is very simple. Number one, the more flash you use in the data center, the fewer servers you need to buy. That one idea alone is so key because it allows you to reduce the footprint of your data center, it allows you to reduce the investment in software licenses and it makes your data center extremely power-efficient because flash uses so much less power than hard drives.

It is very easy to get distracted by the per-bit price of flash versus hard drive where flash is still more expensive. But then you look at all these additional benefits: Fewer servers, smaller footprint, lower power consumption, higher reliability -- flash is 10x more reliable, if not more, than hard drive -- and of course it has hundreds of times higher performance than hard drive. You can build a really resilient, cost-effective data center and more and more workloads can start using flash as their primary storage.

That's the most important trend that is being pioneered by the cloud computing companies. Fortune 1000 companies are still focused on using flash as a cache.

As these technologies evolve, as people get more familiar with flash and as they better understand how big a deflationary force flash can be in the enterprise, the adoption of flash [will] accelerate. What we are doing with our InfiniFlash platform is to bring that better byte-scale computing and storage to the data center at very, very compelling price points.

We have broken the $1/GB value for raw flash. This is not after compression and dedupe; this is raw flash. When you do compression and dedupe on top of it you can get down to 20 cents or less per gigabyte, which is incredibly compelling. Anytime you see numbers of $1 and $2/GB from other vendors, most of the time it is after compression and dedupe.

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