Solid state disks have been around for decades and failed to make the IT mainstream. Why is that about to change?

I did a stint of SSD marketing at DEC in the early 90’s. Then, as now, SSDs offered low I/O latency and high IOPS capacity at an astronomical $/GB.

I’m exceptionally good at making abstract product features meaningful to customers. Everybody says “think outside the box” but few can actually to it.

That’s why so many product benefits sound the same: ROI! CapEx! OpEx! Faster! Eyes glaze over.

Every product has a story to tell and part of marketing’s job is to tell that story well.

But SSDs left me stumped.

I saw three major problems.

  • Cost. People couldn’t get past the $/GB metric. The issues would vary, but the most common was “I can buy a heck of a lot of disks for what you’re asking and take care of performance and capacity at the same time.”
  • Acceptance. As Geoffrey Moore points out, IT directors have a herd mentality. Since so few other people were using them, what was the chance that they should?
  • Need. These folks didn’t know if they needed an SSD and they had no easy way to find out. The fabulous SSD specs couldn’t create a need from unseen problems.

Consumerization of SSDs
IT consumerization is the process by which low-cost and high volume products migrate into IT. We’ve seen it with CPUs, networks, OS’s, I/O busses, disk drives, data bases and applications. Volume rules.

SSDs are next.

Most consumerization works because the volume “consumer” products are about as good as the proprietary products and cost a lot less. Not only to buy, but to engineer because a volume-based infrastructure of development tools, support chips and helpful add-ons develops. These are network effects.

SSDs are going to benefit through another mechanism: consumer education.

Thumb drives as baby SSDs.
The consumer SSD is the flash-based thumb drive. The thumb drive and its close relative, the flash-based notebook disk, knock down 2 of the 3 reasons people haven’t bought into SSDs while helping with the 3rd.

Cost. Notebook SSDs currently cost about $15/GB, while consumer SATA drives are available for ~$0.20/GB. That is a 75x difference, yet consumers are psyched to buy. Why? Because folks now understand that capacity isn’t the important metric when you buy storage.

Flash-based SSDs in high-end notebooks will accelerate the education of the senior execs who buy them. So when an IT director says “I want to buy SSDs for the datacenter” the C-level execs will understand. Not the details, but the concept.

Acceptance. All the high-end sub-notebooks will have SSD options. That means the technology is safe if Apple, Dell, HP and Lenovo are selling it and their friends are buying it.

Need. Consumer SSDs will help datacenter types because for the first time C-level execs will understand emotionally and intellectually that SSDs can make a difference in computer system performance and power use.

But a notebook SSD is imperfectly analogous to a datacenter SSD. For one, it doesn’t replace all existing storage, which means decisions have to be made on what to migrate. Further, the performance implications for servers aren’t widely understood, so the economic benefits are underestimated.

The SSD companies will still have their marketing work cut out for them.

The StorageMojo take
While consumer SSD’s – including USB thumb drives – will provide datacenter SSD vendors a door into the enterprise, it is up to the vendors to walk through it.

After years of playing on the margins of IT SSD vendors face a major cultural shift. They currently sell their products through specialized integrators who target the high performance applications where SSD benefits have been recognized for years by knowledgeable technical customers.

The new SSD markets are horizontal and require new integrators and a new story. Enterprise IT has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years with the advent of network-based services. This has created new opportunities for traditional SSD companies such as Texas Memory Systems and Solid Data while also opening up the market to new approaches such as Gear6.

Engineering-dominated tech firms have a spotty record of success when consumerization hits. Solid state disks will have a major growth spurt over the next five+ years. Will the old-line SSD companies be the ones to take advantage of it?

Comments welcome.