Flash-based storage will quickly become one of the most important technologies in the datacentre, Gartner said this week. Flash-based solid state memory is still 25 to 30 times more expensive than spinning disk drives on a per-gigabyte basis, and there are questions about its durability, but it carries several advantages over traditional storage devices, Gartner analyst Carl Claunch said at the research firm's annual data centre conference.

"If you compare it to disk drives it's a lot faster," Claunch said. "It's small. It's very rugged so you can put flash memory in something where a rotating disk drive would fail because of the shock."

There are technical limits that place a ceiling on the number of times you can rewrite data to a particular location with flash drives, but clever use of software that controls how, where and when data is written is extending product lifespan.

"The reality today is you can create flash that lasts about as long as a real disk drive," Claunch said. "We're really getting to the point where this is interesting."

The biggest strategic reason that flash is gaining prominence in the enterprise is that, for years, server processor speeds have improved exponentially while disk access speed has improved at slower rates. "The gap between the two keeps getting wider," Claunch said.

Using RAM cache and other mechanisms can help eliminate performance penalties, but enterprises are still struggling with erratic application performance because of slow disk drives, Claunch said.

Flash should not replace disk on a one-to-one basis because of the cost, but applications can be sped up dramatically if files and bits that are critical to system performance are moved onto flash, Claunch said.

Flash was one of several products Gartner listed as among "the most important technologies in your data centre future."

Others include green technology, new types of client computing, virtualisation, the cloud, and data centre pods and zones.

Gartner is also forecasting a major change in how servers are built, from today's blades to a fabric-based approach that treats memory, processors and I/O cards as interchangeable elements.

Vendor profits have gone down as servers have become commodities, but development of new fabric-based systems can give customers more flexibility in the data centre while giving vendors a reason to charge more money, Claunch said.

Future fabric-based servers "will treat memory, processors and I/O cards as components in a pool, combining and recombining them into particular arrangements to suits the owner's needs," Gartner has said.

Vendors such as 3Leaf Systems and RNA Networks are working on building data centre platforms that offer some of the flexibility of Gartner's predicted fabric-based servers, and there is plenty of venture capital money out there for vendors with an innovative approach, Claunch said.

"Fabric is a wonderful opportunity," he said. "It's in the best interests of the server vendors to get there."