Is solid state the future of rugged storage?

Are solid state drives finally set to become the storage solution of choice in rugged IT?

Flash drives have been around for some time, of course, and current commercial computer products such as tablets and smartphones all use flash memory. But rotating disk drives still hold the pole position in the rugged universe.

A lot of that comes down to price. Although though the cost of solid state storage has dropped sharply in the past couple of years, mostly because of the huge volume of flash memory now being used in commercial products, the price of rotating disk memory has also dropped. It’s no longer the huge difference it used to be, but perhaps enough to put off cost-conscious users.

Another reason is that the durability of solid state drives was seen as suspect, although vendors claim that perception is fast disappearing.

“Two years ago we would spend maybe 20 to 30 minutes in a sales presentation convincing customers of our products’ endurance, and they would still be skeptical,” said Thomas Isakovich, chief executive at Nimbus Data Systems. “Today we spend no more than five minutes, and they are convinced.”

Much of the growing popularity of solid state technology is due to its inherent ruggedness. Unlike rotating media, it’s impervious to shock and vibration, since it has no moving parts. That makes it ideal for systems used in such places as ships and planes, or for other mobile situations such as in the Army’s future ground combat vehicle.

Another advantage is that the data held in solid state memory is much easier and faster to erase than with rotating disk drives, where data must be overwritten by zeros and ones. That can be a major draw in situations where sensitive data may be at risk.

There’s also the heft factor, which is increasingly important in most rugged IT systems. Solid state drives are much smaller than disk drives with equivalent capacities, and because of that also weigh less.

However, it’s the power efficiency of solid state that is now catching the user’s eye, said Isakovich. Since it doesn’t need to spin disks, a solid state drive requires less energy.

“The motor that spins the platters on disk drives draws a lot of power, around 18 watts,” he said. “An equivalent solid state drive only draws 3 to 4 watts.”

Then there is what Isakovich said is solid state’s superior data handling performance, which is at least 10 times that of hard drives, and in some use cases as much as 50 times. Given all those advantages, going with solid state drives is “sort of a no brainer,” he said, especially if that higher performance is needed.

The counter argument, of course, is that disk drives have also improved in terms of ruggedness. It’s difficult to say that anything rated to MIL-STD-10G levels is not “rugged enough” for most applications, and with rotating media still retaining a sizable difference in wholesale costs — you can get a lot more capacity for your money with a disk drive than you can with a solid state drive — it’s unlikely that solid state will supplant spinning media throughout the rugged market anytime soon.

What is likely to happen is that solid state will take a much larger role in those places where there is need for both rugged and high performance come and where there is less sensitivity about cost.

The military, for example, is pushing for data to be collected and analyzed in more forward positions, because of the potential for better situational awareness. That translates into a need for fast, rugged drives that can collect satellite and other imagery, and stream it in real time. That’s gotten solid state written all over it.