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now consider this...

90% of the enterprise SSD companies which you know have no good reasons to survive.

The main reasons they will hang around a little longer and their ranks may even swell slightly before the big shrink are bad reasons...

Bad marketing and an inefficient market.

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - StorageSearch.com, April 21, 2015

drivers, mechanisms and routes towards consolidation in the enterprise SSD market along with some other outrageous and dangerous ideas

However you interact with the enterprise SSD ecosystem a useful reference point for judging the relevance of what you see happening around you is some kind of implicit background expectation about the size and structure of the market - which at its simplest level is measured by the number of distinctly different vendors and major product types and economic value of the whole market.

As a commentator on the future of the enterprise SSD market since before the modern era of SSDs I've played an active part in setting expectations about the long term growth prospects in the market - measured by vendor count, significantly different product types, and revenue ceilings.

We're now nearing a pivotal point in the enterprise SSD market where the long held assumptions I helped to encourage (especially how many leading systems vendors there will be in the market at the same time) are about to change dramatically.

The changes in customer thinking has already begun. But it will take about 5 or 6 years for all the effects to ripple through. That seems like a long way away. But take it from me - users would make these changes more quickly if they could.

That's the impression I've got from prepublication conversations.

The ideas in this article could be a catalyst to speed up the urgency of change in user thinking. If you want to skip ahead - scroll down to the headline - "Now imagine this..."

why now?

Why will the enterprise SSD market change from a game played concurrently on the same wide open range by hundreds of vendors (if you can be bothered to count them) and which yet still manages to satisfy the egotistical aspirations of so many self styled winners (can they all be right?) this beloved wild spirited contact sport of ours (which vendors can't afford not to take part in) maybe it's better to ask not just "why" but also "how" would it ever change into a sedate board game resembling something more like bridge crossed with chess - in which every space on the table will be precisely ordered and precious and the player seats themselves and cushions will have to be reserved years in advance?

Makes me feel a little sad and nostalgic even thinking about it.

As to the why? Whatever you may think about mergers and acquisitions and suchlike behavior that's got very little to do with it.

The real pressure for change comes from 3 sources:-
  • changes in user behavior

    It's always been true that SSD users change their behavior as they learn from their own experience in deploying SSDs. The lessons they learn after 2 or 3 deployment generations help them to conceptualize for themselves what they can expect to get done better from SSDs.

    In earlier phases of the enterprise market (2007 to 2010) it was difficult for users to disentangle the individual contributory causes of successes and failures as there were too many changing variables in technology.

    When it came to performance modeling for examples - users couldn't be certain how much of the disruptive changes such as memory types (RAM to SLC to MLC etc), computer architecture (including placement of SSDs in server vs SAN), and successive software generations (emulation of HDD arrays, caching of legacy storage, bypassing legacy application stacks) etc could be considered as a onetime improvement as opposed to being part of a predictable and scalable activity. Most vendors didn't know either. Or if they thought they did - they didn't necessarily agree about what had been achieved, the best way to do it or the direction of future change. And comparisons between vendors were problematic for users in the early days flash arrays when there were too few products to compare.

    growing user awareness from experience of similar things

    The educational makeup of the SSD user base has changed.

    It has moved away from being a market in which most users had little or no experience of using mission critical SSDs towards one in which most users already have had several generations of deployments with SSDs. Or they can read about others like them who do have this experience.

    Users are applying the lessons they have learned - the good about the technology along with the bad about the predictability and reliability of vendor continuity roadmaps.

    Users now realize that in their own self interest they have much to gain from abstracting the benefits they get away from the diverse feature sets of any single supplier towards a minimalist set of common must-have features in 2 or 3 distinct SSD box types which will satisfy all their needs while giving them independence from failed or greedy suppliers.

    Web scale companies have been following these types of abstraction strategies for years as many were already well down the road to double digit Nth generation SSD deployments. At their scales their economic options included creating some of the missing links in software for their own uses and their own special applications needs.

    For most enterprises - IT is a tool and not their primary business - so the investment in home grown SSD virtualization and management tools would be nuts - given the massive degree of risk and changeability in the market. But software is a part of the solution.
  • the emergence of new software solutions which can satisfy common management functions in a scalable fashion and in a way which is credible over multiple product generations.

    It's reasonable to ask why isn't there already a better availability of industry wide useful enterprise software which can replace and abstract away the mish mash of different chaotic patches, tools and feature sets which arise in the systems products of SSD box makers and which are sometimes as different to other products from the same supplier in different product generations as they are different to those from other suppliers.

    The reasons are...

    The enterprise SSD software market started chaotically with independent parallel developments in multiple places, and without a common core idea of unification or longevity related roadmaps.

    It hasn't been going long. The first useful enterprise SSD software products emerged in 2009.

    Most early SSD software vendors didn't accomplish very much before they got acquired. The SSD makers who acquired them were in most cases looking for simple tools to make their current product lines easier to sell rather than as the basis for industry-wide platforms which cut across multiple product types and generations. There were some exceptions - but there's more to SSD software than caching and virtualizing different types of SSDs.

    Until recently the entire enterprise SSD market hasn't been big enough to attract the scale of investments needed to deliver industry-wide abstraction tools. So the business case for this type of solution has been risky.

    Where will such solutions come from?

    Some of the solutions may come from the future work of companies like FalconStor and Primary Data while another center of gravity is in the application server type of SSD box and the mainstream SDS market which includes companies like Maxta. But the application server is only one orbit in the enterprise architecture solar system not the whole big bang.

    SDS vendors who want to take advantage of this consolidation trend will have to extend their data reach to support other box types (not just more of their own).

    Other possible entry directions for newcomers into this market include existing box companies - who may determine that abandoning their original business plans as systems companies and morphing into software business entities (or spinning off their software divisions) is a better option than retaining the characteristics of a combined systems business in which the software side is unable to leverage from user experiences and revenue contributions from outside the core box brand.

    And other directions from which we may expect to see newcomers enter this aspect of the software market are:- the productization and repurposing of cloud and webscale software which already exists, and of course - new start ups. But the funding of pure play startups will likely have to be billion dollar plus - because it takes a lot of software to support enough different products and functions to be useful.
what limits the shape of the future consolidated market?

What will limit the shape of the future consolidated market? An underlying architectural pull due to the clumpiness of data gravity within a belly girdled tightly by cost economics with recognizable internal SSD organs which are maintained by the heartbeat of software.

I'm kidding. We know exactly what it will look like. We've known for years.

All future needs in the enterprise can be satisfied by a small number of distinctly different SSD products determined by latency and distance from the application server.

I described the basic product types in my 2012 article - an introduction to enterprise SSD silos.

If you haven't read that article - the simple summary is that there are only about 5 types of SSD box or appliance needed to satisfy all requirements. (And most organizations can get by using as little as 3 of these.)
  • The application server. (That's the server or cluster of SDS servers which run your app.)
  • The SAN box. (That's a storage box which sits outside the apps server).

    There are 3 main types of SAN box - which are different by virtue of latency and the related cost of their raw capacity. The 3 types are:- fast, fast-enough and archive.
  • The SSD ASAP (auto tiering / caching appliance - sometimes integrated in a hybrid and even as a micro hybrid inside the apps server) is a box or software layer which intermediates between any 2 vastly different latencies which are in your environment.
Within every one of these top level box products there is also the business possibility to differentiate these latency based product segments by internal SSD controller architecture and external interface port connectivity.

There are only 2 types of SSD controller architecture which are relevant in this market transition context.

Big controller - in which the base level controller management assumptions can be sure of working with large numbers of flash devices (hundreds or thousands). Examples of such products being Violin's VIMM based 6000/7000 , IBM's FlashSystem, EMC's Extremio, Skyera's (now HGST's) skyHawk, Virident's (now HGST's) FlashMax, Fusion-io's (now SanDisk's) ioMemory etc.

When they can keep pace with memory advances these controller architectures typically outperform arrays of standard SSDs. But the difficulties of supporting new memory types (in particular the demands of adaptive DSP) has meant that all but one of the big architecture controller makers have given up the challenge of native support for cheapest memories and instead rely on more expensive memory - typically some kind of branded eMLC. The market result has been for most of these controllers to congregate at the faster end of the speed segments in SSD box space.

Small controller - in which the base level controller management assumptions can only be sure of working with small numbers of flash devices - typically in the region from 3 to 10. Examples of such products include most (but not all) of the SSDs which you would regard as "standard" commercial off the shelf (COTS) SSDs - having SAS or SATA interfaces.

The benefits of this approach ffrom the user perspective is that arrays of such products benefit from "crowd based intelligence" re advances in flash memory design. This group of SSDs tends to be among the earliest to be able to deploy cheaper kinds of memory within enterprise boxes.

The main disadvantage of arrays of small architecture SSDs used to be intrinsically lower utilization efficiency.

This was because the controller is unaware of what is happening in flash chips in other SSDs which are outside its own reach but within the same array. An emerging trend in software pioneered by webscale entities (such as Baidu) has been to switch off some of the flash management done in the SSD's controller and. by using custom application specific APIs to manage some key functions from the applications server. These techniques can reduce the original gaps in efficiency between small and large controller arrays.

So for each main box type the core flash array can be either:- small or large controller type (standard COTS array or proprietary array if you prefer). No one type appeals to all users.

And the market has developed with multiple similar designs competing in each product type (overlaid with many different shapes of the SSD ASAP intermediation products).

And each of these came with their own software. These are some of the reasons the market has been complicated and tolerated (you might say suffered) many different designs upto now. And we will still need the same number of distinct box types in the future.

But even if you allow for the diversity of having 2 or 3 different key suppliers dominating each SSD box type in the future with maybe a couple of cost differentiated #2, #3 companies in each latency segment - then by the time we get to 2021 (which is about the time it will take for the new software to enable consolidation) the total of distinctly different suppliers in an efficient market will be a lot less companies than we have now.

warning! - boundary analysis meets consolidation

In the discussions I had with readers to test my ideas about understanding the transitions towards a consolidated market I talked through some simple thought exercises.

I use a simple trick I call boundary analysis - which helps me understand and predict market behavior in future markets even when the products being analyzed and the architecture use cases don't yet exist.

Now imagine this... you're considering a new alternate supplier of enterprise SSD storage

You're the top level person who decides what type of SSD boxes your organization buys. Maybe your job title includes words like "logistics", "systems architect", and your industry could be banking, cloud infrastructure, broadcast, manufacturing. Doesn't matter. These conversations go the same way.

We're talking because you're thinking about switching to a new supplier. Maybe you've got a strong candidate in mind, or maybe you've got a list of 10 possibles which you want to refine down. If you've got a strong candidate of one company, I add some more to make it more like a list.

Why are you looking at alternatives? You tell me. But there are many possible reasons.

Maybe you don't think your current supplier offers the best fit for what you do. Maybe you like the products you're buying now but anticipate changes in your supplier which might not be guaranteed to go in the direction which suits you. Maybe your supplier has been acquired. Maybe they're greedy and bundling in things you don't value or feel you should be paying for. It doesn't matter. You've bought lots of SSD boxes before. They're essential for your IT infrastructure. But you don't want to be exposed to the whims of the enterprise SSD next product casino. You want to take control of your own future.

So we're looking at a list of 10 well known suppliers of flash arrays. For simplicity let's call them SAN boxes. (IP SAN or FC SAN doesn't matter. The point is they're not the servers which run your apps.) They are all used by sane, sensible enterprise customers - so we're not worried about them not working.

Probably you've spent days already (or weeks) going through the features, which types of SSDs are inside the arrays etc, etc.

Now line them all up again in your mind.

Now imagine that every single one of these products is actually the same hardware. And when I say the same - I mean the same. Exactly the same hardware box - just a bunch of COTS SAS SSDs, or SATA SSDs or array of something else. They are all exactly the same. In one discussion like this we also replaced Violin and IBM proprietary arrays too.

Now what are the differences you see? And why would you buy from one vendor rather than another?

At its simplest - the main differences are:-
  • software
  • services
  • marketing activation
But I haven't finished yet.

Remember those SSD boxes from all those different vendors?

Let's put them back to their original state. So the boxes from Pure, or IBM or HP or EMC or Nimbus or Violin or (the lists I've discussed with real users include a longer cast of well known characters)... these boxes are all different again.

Sigh of relief from some of you out there in SSD vendor land.

Now line them up in your head.

Now imagine that they all come with exactly the same software.

Now what are the factors which would lead you to preferentially choose one supplier over another?

It's good to start thinking about this. But I don't want you to spend too long on it because I forgot to mention that you also have to pretend - they all use the same hardware too. Oh and you can get the same services for all of them too - either branded by the company you buy from - or from a well known third party.

Where does that leave us- when nearly all the hardware boxes you buy are actually the same box inside, and all the software and services which you find useful (as opposed to being thrown into the feature set) are the same too?

You don't need hundreds of different products. You never did - it's just that they looked different because every vendor was doing something very similar but keeping you captive with their different software, services and marketing.

You still need the small double digit number of different products which are differentiated by latency and distance from the apps server. But you don't need 10 different versions of each one. You only need:- a standard array, a proprietary array, and some cost differentiated #2 and #3 companies in each segment. That's it.

The hardest to source missing piece to get us to that state of the market are (as described above) is software.

But you say - what about the hardware?

Oh yeah. Well here's the interesting thing. When I started having these discussions which imagined replacing all the different SSD boxes with the same box - it was months before SanDisk launched its InfiniFlash system. BTW The no frills, standard array of COTS SSDs isn't a new idea. But the market is different now. And the big difference is user education and the confidence of experienced users to abstract their own needs away from the plethora of junk which gets attached to many product lines in the deluded idea that more technical features make a better product.

When I having these conversations after the InfiniFlash launch it gave me a convenient reference point - but it made no real difference to how users thought about their future plans - compared with a "hypothetical" array replacing all the branded boxes.

Users I spoke to liked the idea and were already starting to make plans about a hypothetical white box style of enterprise SSD being in their futures. That didn't mean they would run out and buy an InfiniFlash box to replace an EMC or Pure box today - but it did mean that they now regarded all branded boxes as white boxes with proprietary bits added. And they were actively engaged at looking how they could use minimal branded feature sets in future deployments so as to ease their own transitions towards infrastructure in which the software, and services would be distinct products sources elsewhere - and not just a mash of bundled things which accidentally came with that product from that supplier.

And that means, incidentally, that they're not willing to pay the same high prices to their existing suppliers - because they are viewing them in a different way.

The enterprise SSD market is now big enough as an ecosystem to enable software and services vendors to think viable and sustainable thoughts about creating products which disentangle the bundles which have been appearing in SSD storage boxes in the past 6 years.

Bad marketing and an inefficient market

Going back to the "imagine this" scenarios above - the main reason we have so many products in the market today is that the enterprise flash market has been a very inefficient market up to now. Most vendors do things badly from the user interest point of view (and from the viewpoint of their own investors).

Despite that many have done OK as SSD businesses despite being bad at marketing for the simple reason - they didn't need to be any better to get where they are now.

Even a badly marketed and suboptimal fit enterprise SSD deployment could deliver outstanding user value propositions for users whose infrastructures mostly comprised traditional HDD array and servers.

Most enterprise SSD revenue until recent years has come from SSDs replacing something else. It hasn't been necessary for SSD box makers to be good at SSD vs SSD marketing wars.

Getting the marketing right from the user perspective is difficult for a disruptive market like enterprise flash. I've discussed some aspects of this in Decloaking hidden segments in the enterprise for rackmount SSDs but that article describes symptoms rather than causes.

why bad marketing?

Bad marketing is the absence of good marketing. And bad enterprise SSD marketing is the norm seen nearly everywhere in the market today. It's diiifuclt for me to pick our the good examples becaue they're intertwined with bad even in the same product launches.

The root cause is it takes years to construct a marketing organization which works well at large scale.

And the pipeline of activities which need to be done to create the right products, educate and motivate the people inside your own organization and outside who have an influence, and factor in all the business impacts on your current products and competitors and partners is a very complex science. I call it a science because a lot of research and analysis has been done on what works and why.

It costs a lot of money to invest in training, and it takes a lot of time and commitment to make good adaptive marketing work. Hardly surprising you don't see much evidence of this in our industry.

Most big vendors in the market today have strategic SSD product lines which were sourced from outside by licensing or acquisition. The marketers they acquire from small companies may be good at technical marketing or good enough to manage startups but lack the product management skills to activate the mammoths which acquired them.

And the current start ups in the business lack the marketing skills and the financial success they need to scale up their ambitions.

You already know it takes many years before a new enterprise software product becomes safe and useful to use in big scale rollouts. Now consider that the creation of that software and the idea of where it would fit in with the ecosystem 5 years after the version 1.0 launch are all actually a subset of a product management portfolio which someone should have been thinking about years ago. But of course that didn't happen.

It never could have happened in our industry.

The next thing in a disruptive market is not just a predictable follow-on from what happened before. But as the market gets more predictable - it will become more sensible to make such investments.

how much is better SSD marketing worth?

I often write about the contributions to efficiency that can be obtained from different types of design tricks.

The same goes for marketing.

In an inefficient market like we've had until now it didn't matter if a vendor sold a few percent more or less of a new system. It was easy to get sales and the total market size was small. But we're moving towards a market in 2020/21 where it will harder to get sales without being good at marketing and where each 1% difference in outcomes could be worth around $1 billion of revenue. That will be the reward for those who are still in the game at that time.

I'm not going to make any prediction about where the "good marketing" in enterprise SSD will come from. But one day when the technology differences don't matter anymore and when it's as easy for users to change their enterprise SSD box infrastructure as it is to change their PCs the SSD market will be very different.

We've got interesting times ahead though as we try to spot where the enterprise SSD software decoupling platforms are coming from.

summary

The enterprise SSD systems market is entering a phase where easy revenue growth opportunities which vendors experienced before due in large part to displacing older technologies will disappear. Future competition will be more like SSD on SSD.

The user base will change in the way it views SSD vendors as the market moves towards an ecosystem in which most user organizations have experience and confidence in deploying flash and managing it.

As a result of those experiences the traditional enterprise will adopt some of the strategies which we have already seen in the earliest big SSD adopters - a willingness to abstract their own needs and best interests away from dependence on solution types which they will increasingly view as being variations around a small group of possible white boxes which vary simply according to latency and distance from the application - as bundled architecture samples rather than as architecture types.

Meanwhile the size of the enterprise SSD ecosystem will encourage the emergence of new types of suppliers who offer software products which can support the long term vision of users and help migrate them away from the dependencies they don't feel are worthwhile.

footnote - re InfiniFlash

In the article above I mentioned that I used SanDisk's InfiniFlash as a convenient example of a white box in some of my prepublication conversations about this article. And in the months before the InfiniFlash launch I was just talking about a white box SSD with similar characteristics.

It didn't make any difference to the willingness of the users I spoke to when it came to their engagement with the ideas. What was interesting though was how willing some users were in thinking about an InfiniFlash style of box in their plans as replacements a branded storage system. If not now then soon.

The transition strategy would involve reducing their future dependence on bundled software features in branded systems - even if all the ingredients aren't available now to move everything to white box. So they're already thinking of the branded systems as supersets of white boxes.

I'm not saying that the InfiniFlash product is a good or bad product.

It's just a well known example in a trend which will grow.

And if you ask me about how good or bad the marketing of this product was? I have spoken to various marketers at SanDisk about this aspect.

Their enterprise marketing has improved a lot in recent years but it's still closer to the norm which is bad rather than anywhere near approaching good. This is due to their newness of being in the market and the other common factors I mentioned above. I could give you a list of other companies which have been in the enterprise storage market for a very long time and which and are also bad at marketiing enterprise SSD systems too.

any questions?

Some vendors may be unhappy with the ideas expressed in the above article - especially the dangerous notion that almost everything they do from a technology point of view and all the treasured things they stuff into their boxes don't equate to flash array heirlooms which their customers will continue to care about.

Before you send me such emails and complaints let me just say that adapting to the changing needs of your customers and anticipating what they need next, and next and after next, is part of what good marketing is about - and if you were doing it well - you'd be the ones who wrote this article - not me.

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Consolidation?

Just to clarify what I mean.
Almost immediately after publishing the blog you see above - I knew that some people people who only read it quickly without understanding the concepts would say something like...

Aha - we know what that means! Just as we suspected - the number of enterprise SSD systems companies is about to collapse - so we can expect to see less in the next few quarters than in the past.

Which is not exactly what I meant.

In the medium term... A reduction? Yes.

And in the long term - a 90% reduction / collapse in distinctly different systems boxes - compared to what we see in the market today (in Q2 2015)? Certainly.

But the number of companies participating in the market will get bigger for a short time - for at least a year - before a steady decline followed by a sharp collapse.

That's because some pieces which are needed to lubricate these gritty changes aren't available yet and where they are - the products are naive, the marketing is unsophisticated and the business units are under resourced.

Aside from the obvious vendors which will immediately benefit from the changes (such as software companies of the type mentioned in the article) we can also expect to see new systems companies entering the market too. (Even as we head towards a converging market.)

That's because the TAM is huge and a changing market creates new opportunities.

In one of the many prepublication conversations I had about these concepts the person I was talking to said he was so inspired that he was going to launch his own new rackmount SSD systems company instead of doing something very significant with another vendor. ...read more here

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comments related to this article

"Always thoughtful Zsolt. Few have the credibility to write this" - Woody Hutsell, IBM.

"Zsolt, this is an insightful article that shows your vast experience and unique position in the industry" - Morgan Littlewood, Founder at Kodiak Data

"Hi Zsolt, Definitely a lot to think about there, and hopefully in the future we'll be able to show that we paid attention to your observations and steered the business in the right direction…" - Director, Marketing at a Top 10 SSD company.

"Hello Zsolt, I was so inspired after our call yesterday (which discussed concepts in the consolidation article) that I decided to launch my own Flash SSD company." VP Storage at a major worldwide corporation

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about the publisher - guiding the enterprise since 1991
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white box SSDs

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scary predictions
this town ain't big enough for the two of us

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SSD news

SSD market history

can you trust SSD market data?

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I was never a fan of the term "AFA" and always thought that the "All Flash Array" was a marketing rather than a technology idea.

And soon the industry will have to forget AFAs as the term loses its novelty appeal to those who momentarily believed it had any.
optimizing CPUs for use with SSDs in the Post Modernist Era



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the golden age of enterprise SSDsWas there ever a Golden Heroic Age of the Enterprise SSD market?

and could the plot of the enterprise SSD story have been rewritten with different characters to make it simpler?



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SSD ad - click for more info


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"When a startup shuts down and weve had several such instances in the recent past everyone sympathises with the entrepreneur. Which is fair - he lost his company. Whats amusing is how no one thinks of the VC who lost all his money and got nothing in return except a certificate of - You dont know how to make a good investment.
Shephali Bhatt, Principal Correspondent at - the Economic Times - in her blog - It's hard to be a VC, harder to be his wife (July 27, 2016)

see also:- VCs in SSDs


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Smaller nuances of user behavior (which are easier to discern as patterns in a stable market) easily get lost under the noise created by headline technology changes and the market's apparent willingness to slaughter and discard once loved past industry leaders.
Decloaking hidden SSD segments in the enterprise


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SSD ad - click for more info..


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When you read something about the SSD market which you didn't know before - or which seems to contradict something which you previously held as a working hypothesis - what do you do next?
can you trust SSD market data?


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New generations of SSD centric software will shrink the amount of flash needed to replace all enterprise hard drives.
utilization rates, revenue crashes and other consequences of the enterprise SSD software event horizon


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Justifying the cost of enterprise SSDs was often muddled and confusing. New pricing models make it easier for users to experiment safely amid uncertainty.
Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing


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can you guess what will the next enterprise flash array box will look like?
playing the enterprise SSD box riddle game
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"Why cant you just install a new storage solution from a different vendor, migrate data from existing storage to new storage, decommission existing storage, and move on?

The reasons for storage vendor lock-in are twofold.

The first is storage management lock-in...

The second reason is data management lock-in....

Two emerging technologies, and more importantly the synergy between them, may provide the relief from storage vendor lock-in in virtualized server environments."
Storage Vendor Lock-in – is the End Near? - a blog by Yoram Novick, founder Maxta (August 15, 2015)


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"A critical test of whether you really understand the dynamics of a complex market like enterprise SSDs - is whether you can predict what rational buyers might do when offered new product options at the extreme limits of - for example - price."
Boundaries Analysis in SSD Market Forecasting


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Unlike before - today new companies entering the market can rely on a sophisticated SSD ecosystem - in which key elements of their solutions are already being supplied by other companies.
what changed in SSD year 2013?


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SSD ad - click for more info