Flash Memory: How Does It Affect Storage Administrators?

The use of flash memory, which provides hard-disk-like storage capabilities on a silicon chip, is popular in devices such as cell phones, digital cameras, digital set-top boxes, MP3 players, and other Internet appliances. Although flash-memory sales slumped around 30 percent during 2001, a recently released study by Web-Feet Research (a Monterey, California-based market research company) predicts that flash-memory market sales will climb 7.7 percent in 2002. As the flash-memory market recovers, it's also experiencing a significant shift. In the past, engineers used flash memory primarily for programming or code generation and development, but flash memory is now emerging as a data-storage technology.

Historically, two competing architectures for flash memory have existed—NOR and NAND. NOR flash memory offers random access and has been the architecture of choice for embedded-code storage and execute-in-place applications, such as applications used in cell phones. NAND flash memory relies on sequential access, and developers have more commonly used NAND architecture in applications that rely on large amounts of data storage, such as MP3 players. But the distinction among the applications for the two architectures is beginning to blur, according to Alan Niebel, an analyst at Web-Feet. On the one hand, manufacturers of NOR devices have devised ways to increase the devices' densities, making them more suitable for data-intensive applications. On the other hand, many of the devices in the handheld and mobile markets now run applications with larger data-storage requirements, so NAND flash memory is finding its way into traditional NOR devices, such as cell phones.

NAND sales currently represent a little more than 9 percent of the total flash-memory market, according to Web-Feet. By 2006, NAND-based chips will have captured about 45 percent of the total flash-memory market, with NOR still maintaining a majority share of 55 percent. But analysts at Cahners In-Stat/MDR frame the flash-memory market a little differently and report that low-density code-generation applications currently account for about 75 percent of embedded flash-memory use. Cahners In-Stat/MDR predicts that as the implementation of data-storage applications grows, that number will slip to 66 percent by 2005.

What do these numbers mean for the storage industry and for you as a storage administrator? In short, the network periphery will redefine itself over the next 5 years. For the past 20 years, the PC (desktop or laptop) has defined the edge of the computing infrastructure. The attempt to convert data stored on local hard disks into a corporate resource has been an ongoing struggle—ask any technical support staff person who has needed to restore an improperly backed-up hard disk. Now, the growth of flash memory means the expansion of the data-storage network beyond the PC. Thus, the complexity of backup tasks is about to grow exponentially.

As the use of PDAs, intelligent cell phones, and other devices that rely on flash memory and flash-memory disks grows, IT administrators must develop policies to ensure that they’re securely safeguarding the data stored on those devices while keeping the data appropriately accessible. Several factors complicate this task. First, most organizations let users select their own handheld devices, with no dominant standard defining how to integrate those devices into the corporate-information network. Consequently, you might find yourself relying on end users for backup and other administrative activities. Second, with the emergence of small-footprint databases, users will store more information (and more crucial information) on flash-memory-based devices, so figuring out a reliable backup/storage plan will be increasingly important.

Like the universe, the network of stored information is constantly expanding. Storage administrators must prepare to venture into this new frontier of flash-memory storage. If you're ready to go where you haven't gone before, visit the Web-Feet and Cahners In-Stat/MDR Web sites for further information.

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