QLC made gains but storage innovation focus was on software in 2023

The year 2023 will go down as one in which some big storage suppliers focused on upgrades to array products, notably using high-density and low-cost quad-level cell (QLC) flash storage, while others built around software-based optimisation in place of hardware innovation.

“When we look back at storage products launched in 2023 we can see a focus on simplification of the hardware offer and making it commercially attractive,” said Brent Ellis, an analyst at Forrester Research.

“All the vendors understand the Covid-19 pandemic changed disk array procurement cycles forever, and that removed the urgency to invest in hardware innovation,” he added.

According to Marc Staimer, founder of Dragon Slayer Consulting, “venture capitalists have invested less in storage startups since the pandemic, even though the startups have been a breeding ground for innovation for the big array makers”.

NetApp and Pure wield QLC in entry-level array fight

The past year saw NetApp and Pure Storage hit the market with QLC flash-based arrays that in cost-per-gigabyte (GB) terms were not much more expensive than hard disk drive (HDD)-based products.

In February, NetApp went to market with a formula initiated by Pure (with its FlashArray//C) and launched the AFF C-series (the C250, C400 and C800) which support 48, 96 or 144 QLC solid-state drives (SSDs) of 15TB (terabytes) respectively. AFF arrays work in block access (SAN) mode even though most customers use them in file mode (NAS).

AFF C-series arrays are aimed at formerly nearline storage applications like backup, which suit the characteristics of QLC flash, such as accelerated wear and higher latency on intensive writes.

In March, Pure Storage elaborated on the same concept, this time with its FlashBlade//E file and object arrays, which brought cost-per-GB down to a claimed $0.20. Pure Storage makes its own DirectFlash Modules in a format more dense than commodity drives, and this allows it to claim more capacity per rackmount unit than NetApp.

In June, Pure Storage added a new family of FlashArray//E arrays that use QLC in block access (SAN) mode to build on the cost-saving characteristics used in its file and object storage products.

In July, and again in October, NetApp responded with a new range of arrays. This time they were solely SAN, in the shape of the ASA (All-SAN Array), with the ASA C-series offering a claimed $0.50 per GB.

By the end of the year, NetApp and Pure were joined by a third player in the same market space. This was Huawei, which launched the OceanStor Pacific 9920 in September, then the OceanStor Dorado 2100 in November.

These products took top-of-the-range configurations and put them into modular products that start at 2U of rackspace, aimed at the SME and remote office market.

Huawei makes clear that QLC (and even PLC) drives can be used in the OceanStor Pacific 9920 scale-out series, while the OceanStor Dorado 2100 uses TLC media.

Dell, HPE and IBM focus on software

During this period, Dell – top dog among the array makers – didn’t launch a new array. It insisted gains in performance and functionality were possible by innovations in software.

Similar stories emerged from Hitachi Vantara and HPE, which had previously built their high-end storage product lines on ASIC chips for high performance, but are now aiming their efforts at on-board software.

“If innovation in hardware has stagnated. it is simply because all the vendors realise they can do more with the arrays that they’ve already put on the market”
Dave Pearson, IDC

For Hitachi Vantara, the focus is on its VSP One software-defined storage product line, which pools server storage into disk array-like capacity with block, file and object access.

Meanwhile, at HPE, the new Alletra MP range is the company’s system-level modular offer that can provide SAN storage, object storage using Scality, backup appliances (including Kubernetes backup) with Cohesity, and distributed file storage via Vast Data.

IBM also announced an entire revamp of its storage offer based around server hardware differentiated by functionality at system level via storage software.

That began in March, with a reworking of all its products under the banner of IBM Storage and the launch of IBM Storage Defender, which uses Cohesity software. At the end of the year, IBM launched the high-end NAS Storage Scale 6000, better equipped in terms of connectivity and which runs the GPFS parallel file system in containers.

“The evidence shows that there is still a margin of progression in terms of efficiency and consolidation possible in the datacentre via hardware,” said IDC analyst Dave Pearson. “If innovation in hardware has stagnated. it is simply because all the vendors realise they can do more with the arrays that they’ve already put on the market.”


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