Gartner recently published their Market Share Analysis: SSD Component and SSD-Based Appliances, Worldwide, 2012, ID: G00252396.  If you are a Gartner customer, you can download the full report from your account, if not, you’ll have to make do with the excerpted version published on The Register (which I’ll use as the basis of this article, since the source Gartner version is client confidential).  And to be clear about the terminology, this report covers what the market is now generally referring to as “All-Flash Arrays” – essentially any storage device that uses 100% flash storage, ranging from legacy disk arrays retrofitted with flash (a la EMC VNX/VMAX and NetApp FAS) to Flash Appliances (a la Violin and IBM TMS) to purpose-built All-Flash Arrays (a la Pure Storage and EMC XtremIO).

When you look more deeply into the numbers, you see a subtle trend playing out: the flash market is shifting from legacy disk retrofits and Flash Appliances to purpose-built All-Flash Arrays.  Looking at the individual vendor shares is interesting, but it is more enlightening to look  at the trend across categories given the stark differences in lineage and functionality across the three:

  • Flash Appliances: The flash appliances came first and focused on hardware centric innovations–built from raw NAND (flash chips) and custom ASICs, and correspondingly light on software features.  Examples in this report include Violin and IBM/TMS.
  • Retrofit Disk Arrays: Next came the legacy disk retrofits. As the incumbent storage vendors looked to accelerate performance with flash caching, they also realized they could deliver substantially higher performance by replacing all of the disk spindles with flash SSDs. The challenge is that these arrays were designed for disk, and their software and controller architectures have proven to not scale to deliver on the potential of flash. Examples in this report include EMC (VMAX/VNX), HDS, and NetApp.
  • Purpose-built All-Flash Arrays: The storage market leaders have now recognized that flash requires wholly new storage software optimized for flash. Purpose-built All-Flash Arrays are generally built from commodity hardware (standard SSDs, CPUs, and interconnects), with all of the innovation going into software for performance management, data protection, fault tolerance, scalability, and data reduction (to reduce cost). Examples in this report include Pure Storage and our competitors, as well as in the future EMC XtremIO and NetApp FlashRay (which were not included by Gartner as they are still not yet generally available).

So here’s how the data looks when grouped into these three buckets (omitting the “other” category, as that can’t be classified):

When you factor in time (i.e. growth rate) and vendor strategy/investment on this picture, the future becomes clear:

  • The largest “segment” is mechanical storage retrofitted with flash, but the leading vendors in this space, EMC and NetApp, have both announced that they have superseded this approach by acquiring or building All-Flash Arrays, XtremIO and FlashRay, respectively.  So net net, the green section above will merge into the blue section as these next-generation products are released and hardened for production, given the superior functionality, higher performance, and lower cost afforded by flash-optimized architectures. So on a “buy/sell/hold” analysis, legacy retrofits rate a “sell.”
  • The other dominant first-generation approach, Flash Appliances, are now facing slower growth and at best rate a “hold.”  Consider that the two major players in this segment, Violin and IBM/TMS, were founded in 2005 and 1978, respectively.  In 8+ years of trying these vendors have accumulated a 40% market share.  Contrast this with the newer All-Flash Array players (Pure and its competitors) who had been in the market for 1-2 years total in 2012, and have already accumulated nearly 20% of the market.  Also consider the growth projections the Flash Appliance vendors were making in 2001, and contrast that with their actual revenue delivery.

Among the three categories, the “buy” is clear. Market momentum is now with the purpose-built All-Flash Arrays. The All-Flash Array vendors are currently delivering the fastest growth in the flash storage market segment. As a result, the incumbent disk storage leaders are pouring their R+D efforts into All-Flash Arrays, and the first-generation Flash Appliance vendors are seeing their growth slow and comparative market share dwindle, as they struggle to jump start software efforts to avoid being left behind by the new wave of all-flash arrays.

We are very much looking forward to the 2013 report, which prove out that All-Flash Arrays are the future for not just the flash space, but for Tier 1 storage at large!