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Speed off with flash storage benefits for healthcare

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Flash storage trends in healthcare point to NVMe, QLC

In the alphabet soup of storage technologies, two that health IT professional should pay attention to are QLC and NVMe -- both of which boost flash options.

In checking out some of the recent work from my colleagues at SearchSecurity and ComputerWeekly, several flash storage trends kept coming up -- and hospital IT managers should become familiar with these trends if they aren't already.

Flash storage uses flash memory, a technology that provides faster access to information while using less power. Compared to traditional storage drives, flash storage uses no spinning disks.

Flash offers noticeable benefits to healthcare organizations in certain cases, including the following:

  • decreased physical space needed for storage servers;
  • quicker clinical data processing;
  • potentially improved telehealth system performance; and
  • consistent performance uptimes.

Who's buying flash, anyway?

Flash memory's advantages have garnered the attention of health IT professionals. In 2017, 34.6% of respondents indicated they were considering purchasing flash storage technology, according to TechTarget's Health IT Purchasing Intentions Survey. That figure jumped up from 22.5% the year before. TechTarget publishes SearchHealthIT.

Meanwhile, in TechTarget's industry-wide 2018 IT Priorities Survey, 25% of respondents said all-flash arrays were a top storage initiative. An all-flash array is a type of solid-state storage system that holds advantages over disk-based storage in terms of better performance and lower latency during data queries.

Image of a flash storage array.
A flash storage array from Pure Storage.

Flash storage trends to watch

Given up to one-third of you may be in the market for flash technology, here's a brief rundown of flash storage trends that could be influential in healthcare purchasing decisions:

  • Nonvolatile memory express (NVMe). Nonvolatile refers to technology that doesn't need a continuous power supply to retain data. Storage industry observers note that NVMe is a step toward evolving flash capabilities. In broad terms, NVMe flash devices maintain the latency of predecessors while also delivering improvements of up to 10 times in raw IOPS (input/output operations per second). IOPS is a common performance measurement for storage devices. To enjoy the advantages of NVMe, servers and storage arrays must support the new technology.
  • QLC in NAND. NAND -- an abbreviation based of the computer logic term Not And -- is the predominant architecture for flash systems. One or more flash chips make up a NAND drive. Single-level cell architecture for NAND eventually gave way to multi-level and triple-level cell NAND to increase storage capacity. The newest iteration is quad-level cell (QLC), which further boosts capacity. However, a potential problem that industry experts are keeping an eye on is whether QLC cells degrade faster than other cell levels.
  • Lower costs. The cost of flash systems has decreased. For example, all-flash array prices dropped from $15 per GB to $1 or less over the last few years, mainly thanks to increased competition. Meanwhile, flash capacity is increasing.

That last bullet caught me off guard, as I always assumed this tradeoff: If hospitals liked flash's improved speed, they needed to buck up the money for it.

But today's lower costs, combined with evolving enhancements to the technology, warrant at least a review of your flash storage plans.

This was last published in August 2018

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