Get set for the biggest technology shift in storage as flash seems poised to overtake hard drives and puts 1 TB on a stamp sized chip.
By Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore April 6 2015: In housing as much as in computer storage, the principle is the same: if you run out of floor space, the only way to go is up.
March has been an incredible month for storage technology with multiple announcements which signalled the biggest breakthrough in Flash memory since it was first invented 30 years ago by Toshiba, an a solid state alternative to spinning disk drives, floppy drives and compact magnetic disks or CDs.
Last week saw simultaneous announcements by Toshiba and an Intel-Micron combo that they had gone further in creating 3-D NAND Flash chips with 32 to 48 layers memory stacked on top of each other so that the same real estate on a memory card could now offer 3 times more storage than the 2D chips of today which max out at 128 GB each. Toshiba predicted a 1 Terabyte ( 1000 GB) on a stamp sized Flash chip by 2016. Intel previewed a solid state device no larger than a stick of chewing gum, holding 3.5 TB and said the solid state drive used by tablets and notebooks would soon offer 10 TB of storage.
Meanwhile Samsung used the same 3-D NAND flash technology last week, to launch a 1 TB version of its popular mSATA drive for ultraportable laptops. Problem is you have to pay for cramming so many GBs into so little space. The 1 TB drive costs the equivalent of Rs 27,000.
But the cost-per-GB of Flash is falling -- and with 3-D it will fall faster. Today we still prefer magnetic disk drives in PCs and data centres because they cost half as much as Flash for same capacity. But pundits predict, 3-D stacking is the tipping point -- they can keep adding more layers and by 2020 Flash will cost only a seventh of hard drives, TB for TB. By next year phones will come with 128 - 256 GB of storage not today's piddling 32- 64 GB.
With Flash storage prices set to tumble, the technology has taken on the last bastion of magnetic disk drives -- the data centre.
A few days ago Korea Times broke the story that Google one of the world's biggest data repositories would soon use Samsung 3-D Flash in its 1000s of data centres. Amazon is already a convert to Samsung's 3D Flash.
Last month SanDisk offered its own all-Flash enterprise storage system, called InfiniFlash, which for the first time broke the lakshman rekha of $1 per gigabyte. With the cost of bulk Flash storage expected to further fall 10-fold in 5 years, to around $ 10 per terabyte, all-Flash data centres may soon be the norm.
Is there a hitch? Yes. No one quite knows how long Flash storage will store. It has a finite number of possible input-output operations --- millions maybe, but after that, kaput! Experts say bulk Flash storage is good for at least 15 years, but spinning disk drives which have already worked longer, are not yet ready to roll over and die.
For the rest of us, uploading 250 billion photos a day to Facebook worldwide, generating 1 lakh tweets a minute, creating 30 hours of YouTube videos a minute.. all adding up to 4 Exabytes (that's 4 million terabytes) of data a month, a flashy future awaits!