Why QLC flash changes the hybrid cloud equation

In the debates of hard drives vs. flash and on vs. off premises, the answer is often not just one over the other. However, surging QLC flash technology offers many benefits.

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NetApp recently announced the launch of its All Flash FAS C–Series storage portfolio that uses quad-level cell, or QLC, technology to lower the cost of flash capacity. While not the first storage vendor to offer QLC-based flash, with this announcement, NetApp has taken a significant step in making flash performance more accessible to a wider variety of workloads.

With QLC technology becoming increasingly available -- helping to decrease the cost of flash storage to levels comparable with hard drive technology -- are we witnessing the death of the hard drive? Yes and no.

Hard drives, flash or both?

Innovation continues in the spinning disk space, too, so that technology will persist. For data center environments, however, my position has always been that if the data is valuable enough to store, then it is valuable enough to invest in low-latency access to it.

My position predates the recent QLC announcements. Flash technology delivers such tremendous value that all production workloads should already be on flash storage, even with uses traditionally identified as needing "cheap and deep" storage.

For example, nearly two years ago, TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group conducted a study on data lake and data pipeline environments. In that study, more than two-thirds of respondents identified that their data lake environment was on all or mostly flash storage.

Any production storage infrastructure that resides in an environment that you own, operate and manage should already be flash-based, given the massive benefits flash storage delivers to performance, predictability, reliability and overall simplicity to operations. And now, as power and sustainability concerns are rising as a priority, flash-based storage has even more justification to serve as the standard. So, again, does QLC spell the death of the hard drive? In the data center, absolutely. On-premises storage investments should already be all-flash.

As a technology, however, hard drives continue to have a role. With spinning disks likely to continue playing their foundational role supporting multiple public cloud storage services, and with on-premises environments continuing to embrace flash, an imbalance emerges. As a result, lower-latency infrastructure becomes even more cost-effective on premises.

On or off premises, or both?

While public cloud services deliver tremendous benefits in flexibility and agility, the cost of delivering low-latency performance -- particularly with flash capacity -- in the public cloud can get expensive quickly, especially at scale. In addition, one area where the larger cloud providers can struggle is the speed at which they can deliver new infrastructure technologies, such as QLC-based flash, to their subscribers.

It's a top priority to invest in hybrid cloud flexibility and products that can deliver cloud-like agility and flexibility benefits on premises.

Innovations such as QLC can change the storage cost curve, but in traditional on-premises storage environments, those advantages will likely not be enough to offset the benefits of cloud storage for most workloads. The advantage likely still lies with the cloud for those more traditional architectures, given the importance of agility to so many organizations.

For the modernized hybrid cloud environments, where agility benefits are extended to on-premises locations -- or even colocation options, where organizations have more control over the infrastructure -- the advent of QLC increases their value significantly. After all, you need to be agile to take ultimate advantage of price adjustments in infrastructure. QLC represents just the most recent example.

Let's turn back to the NetApp announcement. The release of QLC-based storage, combined with NetApp's work in cloud services -- with products such as Amazon FSx for NetApp OnTap -- and its management plane for BlueXP, make things interesting. Organizations can harness the benefits of QLC while achieving hybrid cloud flexibility and agility to better take advantage of it.

The operational agility offered by public cloud services is truly transformational, and those benefits will continue to drive high rates of cloud growth and adoption. For hybrid cloud products, however, what NetApp is building can extend the agility benefits of cloud storage on premises. Basically, organizations can benefit from lower-cost QLC-based flash on premises while also attaining benefits in agility.

This is why it's a top priority to invest in hybrid cloud flexibility and products that can deliver cloud-like agility and flexibility benefits on premises. Flexibility lets your organization maximize the value of new innovations when they come to market.

QLC is great, but it will not change the on- vs. off-premises debate. In truth, there is no debate. The correct answer is to keep using both on- and off-site IT, and both spinning and flash storage where appropriate. Successful firms should have the flexibility to use the best tech when and where they want.

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