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What’s the Future of Flash Storage?

June 28, 2018 No Comments

Featured article by Anna Johansson, freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant

If you’re like most businesses, you probably rely on at least some flash storage for your day-to-day operations. You might have flash memory as a critical component of your laptops, use it as extra storage in your office, or have it in the form of portable flash drives, so your employees can easily transfer files from one computer to another.

Still, flash storage is facing competition, with cloud-based storage solutions and similar apps. So what does the future hold for this currently ubiquitous storage technology?

Key Threats

Flash storage isn’t a perfect storage format. If it’s going to survive (and grow), it needs to overcome these primary hurdles:

1. Lifespan. Flash inherently has a limited lifespan. The more frequently you use a flash drive, the more quickly it’s going to wear out; eventually, you’ll face bit rate errors and eventually, total drive failure. One of the biggest problems is the sheer unpredictability at play here; some drives may be able to last for decades, while others may wear out in a year or two. If flash storage is going to be the primary way we store information for the foreseeable future, consumers are going to demand much higher reliability and lifespan.

2. Scalability. We create something on the order of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, which is hard to fathom. As our technology becomes more powerful and consumers become more demanding, the need for high-volume storage is going to grow. We’ve made great progress on external flash drive storage capacity, but we still have a long way to go—and it seems like our decades of Moore’s Law doubling our capacity are coming to an end. We may need to find a different storage technology if we want to continue scaling upward.

3. Cost. The cost of flash storage has remained relatively steady, but there are external factors influencing prices, such as the availability of raw materials. It’s hard to keep these costs under strict control, and even harder to drive costs down, especially now that Moore’s Law is winding down to an end.

4. Utility. There’s also the question of utility. Flash storage is at its best use for external, USB-based hard drives, but the need and utility for these devices is dwindling. The availability of Wi-Fi and apps that rely on cloud storage make data storage and retrieval easier and more accessible than ever. Some devices, like those made by Apple, are starting to eliminate USB ports altogether. As people grow more accustomed to the function and demand of a highly mobile, cloud-driven world, the utility of conventional flash storage is going to decline.

5. New innovations. There are many emerging data storage technologies that have the power to threaten flash. Helium drives, for example, sound futuristic, but could feasibly create a 10 TB hard drives thanks to the cooler interior, which can better support a quickly-spinning disk. Other researchers are exploring the possibility of mimicking the storage potential of DNA, or utilizing the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to store information even more efficiently.

Opportunities for Development

Fortunately for flash, there are multiple opportunities for potential development:

- Multi-level storage. Multi-Level Cell (MLC) flash relies on four different voltage levels per cell, which instantly multiplies the capacity for a single drive. If this technology progresses further, it could seriously increase the reliability and lifespan of flash devices, while driving down costs.

- Cost breakthroughs. Flash could also remain competitive if engineers and manufacturers find a convenient way to drive down costs. Finding alternative materials with which to produce these devices may be enough to keep flash storage inexpensive for the foreseeable future.

- New, adaptive forms. We could also see a change in the utility of flash drives, switching over from a USB-based connection method to something that’s wireless. This would require a costly upgrade, but it may be possible if coupled with lower costs.

So will flash be replaced by a newly emerging technology, or will it continue to dominate the market? That depends on how quickly engineers and researchers can find solutions to flash’s biggest current problems. In any case, flash inevitably has at least a few years left.


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