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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Is the cloud a threat to your consumer device business? More and more, consumers use the cloud for photos or other things that they're saving. Is it such that the better the cloud opportunities get, the weaker the consumer opportunity gets?

That has been concern amongst some people that the dramatic growth in the cloud could start to impact local storage on devices like smartphones and laptops. But we certainly haven't seen that. The reason is that the capabilities of these smartphones have also improved substantially over the years.

Look at the quality of pictures we can take. We are going from, let's say, 12, 15 megapixels up to a point where companies will start introducing dual-lens cameras on the smartphone. They will take much, much better image quality pictures.

We are looking at 4K video. You're looking at computational photography, which can allow you to zoom into different parts of the picture and so much data from the image has to be captured so that kind of dynamic adjustment can be made after the fact.

The amount of storage per image keeps going up quite significantly every time you adopt a newer technology like this. As imaging technology improves, the storage needs keep escalating and as video increases in its prevalence and consumers are shooting a lot more videos, these kinds of trends end up requiring more and more local storage as well.

You've seen Apple skipping the 32GB phone and going straight from 16GB to 64GB as the next level. These types of trends will influence other smartphone makers as well. We certainly expect that more and more people will realize that, for a good-quality smartphone, the 16GB phone doesn't really cut it. They need at least a minimum of 32GB. That increase in average capacities we don't see slowing down.

One thing that has actually helped adoption of flash on the notebook side is that people don't need to store everything on their hard drives anymore. You have a mass storage device at home, be it WD My Cloud or something else, or you have storage in the cloud. Instead of needing a 1TB or a 2TB hard drive, you can actually have a 256GB flash-based SSD in your laptop. You don't need the 2TB or 1TB hard drive because you can leverage the cloud more effectively. That has allowed more people to switch to SSDs and it has lowered the barrier of adoption for consumers.

Of course this has been happening more and more on the corporate laptops but increasingly more and more consumers are going down that path as well. We don't see the negative impact of the growth of cloud, but we see a lot of positive impacts on the device side. Of course we benefit heavily by the growth of the cloud itself because, as I mentioned to you at the start of the discussion, cloud companies tend to deploy more flash in their infrastructure than regular enterprises.

Can you talk about the problem today on the web of streaming media? There's an explosion in streaming media and the Internet is not being particularly well suited to handle that growing volume. Is there a role that storage plays, memory plays, in resolving that issue?

I think memory plays a very important role in that and we are doing two things to really help that issue. The first is to bring the benefits of flash to streaming media companies, which enables their infrastructure to respond much faster to customer requests. When you tap on a movie on Netflix or you select some YouTube video, what is happening behind the scenes is there are very complex algorithms that are assessing which are the most frequently accessed videos or clips or movies -- and more and more that is getting stored in flash instead of hard drives.

That kind of intelligent caching is being leveraged heavily. Facebook has said that they have tracked how images and videos that people upload get accessed and after the first 30 days of that video being uploaded the hits on that video fall precipitously, by 90%. Then they can move that media onto slower devices like hard drives but certainly it makes a lot of sense to keep them on flash, at least for the first 30 to 60 days. Flash is becoming very, very key to manage the resilience and the responsiveness of the Internet, which is getting so much more media-centric and video-centric.

On the other side, we are working with companies who can leverage local storage more effectively. To give you an example, when you connect your phone or your iPad or any other tablet to the power supply at night and it is charging, what if some smart analytics running in the cloud from your service provider or from your favorite subscription service like Netflix or Hulu could tell what movies or clips you are likely to watch or would enjoy watching. Then they are downloaded to your smartphone and ready for you to access through your home wireless network and offloaded from the wireless LTE network where the bandwidth is at a premium.

Those types of capabilities are key to actually enabling a better user experience. Your phone can offer you suggestions on what you might like to watch and it is ready to be consumed without having to download it real time during the day when the bandwidth is constrained. As data analytics get leveraged more broadly, when they get married to this storage in the device being used as a staging area for media, we can relieve the bandwidth problems as well and allow for a better user experience.

How does the Internet of things change the market opportunity for you? How are you helping people capture that opportunity and solve some of the problems that they encounter with it?

The Internet of things is in its infancy and will continue to create an explosion of devices and products that will be connected to the Internet and generate a lot of data. Of course there are many challenges. How do you create an infrastructure that handles all of that? How do you ensure privacy and security of the data, but also how do you make sense of all that data? There are some statistics out there that 85% to 90% of the data that is collected today is all dark data, meaning data that you don't have access to easily or you're not able to effectively use to create new insights that help your business.

A lot of the challenges relate to taking data analytics to the next level and creating usable insights from data. You can think about cognitive computing, you can think about a whole bunch of other ways in which data can be visualized and important trends can be isolated that can help business. That's one of the challenges that business has.

From a storage perspective, we can't help in all of those challenges but where we can help is to ensure that data can be accessed very, very quickly. Think about companies in the financial space that are involved in fraud detection. What if, instead of running batch jobs overnight to figure out where fraudulent credit card transactions are happening, you could do that in real time because your database is now working off of flash? You're able to run those queries and algorithms on real-time transactions and stop these types of fraudulent transactions as they're occurring, not after the fact.

Those are huge changes that are taking shape -- and flash is playing a big role in those.

On the storage front, we can make it a higher-performance storage infrastructure, a more resilient storage infrastructure, a more reliable storage infrastructure and one that uses far less power and allows for consolidation of processing to achieve the same goal. That's where flash becomes a very, very powerful catalyst for a more efficient data center. That's what we are focused on in terms of helping the companies that are deploying the Internet of things in various ways.

Sumit, is there anything I didn't touch on that you think is important for our readers to understand?

The only other piece is what we have been seeing in the semiconductor industry in terms of consolidation. 2015 was a year of record mergers and acquisitions in the semiconductor space. I certainly expect that the environment that we are in will create enough catalysts and motivation for more companies to merge and drive economies of scale and use the investment capability from the combined companies to drive innovative technology. That trend will continue over the next couple of years and it is going to be impacting a lot of companies in the sector.

This story, "Q&A: As prices fall, flash memory is eating the world" was originally published by Computerworld.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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