War games IT vendors play

Vendors of solid-state flash memory tend to market it as being so rugged that it's used on battlefields. But the reality is more prosaic and nicely illustrates how best-of-breed.

IT systems don't automatically make sense, even when they can deliver impressive (and costly) performance gains.

The substantial price differential between storing data on a mechanical disk (cheap) and on silicon (expensive) is about 130 times. But even this hefty premium for solid-state memory is less than it was in the early 1990s.

Indeed, an abundance of solid-state flash memory on the market has helped usher in new uses. Medical applications now take advantage of flash memory's enhanced access capabilities to quickly see rich graphical displays. Network equipment makers also recognize the benefits of flash memory to speed data delivery, thereby relieving bandwidth constraints. But in both of these markets, the higher price for flash memory is more than balanced by the increase in performance these users demand.

Unfortunately, the same isn't true throughout the IT ecosystem. Vendors constantly tout new technology wrapping it in marketingspeak designed to make potential users think they are one step removed from a Special Forces operation.

The very idea of "mission-critical" IT only serves to make us feel better about the IT fictions we tell ourselves. The serious intonations of IT vendors stroke our egos, while punching a hole in our balance sheets.

In the solid-state flash memory world, there are mission-critical situations in which drives can't fail. A PC aboard an unmanned submarine mapping deep-ocean currents without a tested, 100 percent reliable drive would be folly, just as using a gel-coated mechanical drive in a missile guidance system would likely not meet the rigorous requirements of the military.

Industries such as oil and gas, transportation, and manufacturing, in which severe vibration, extreme temperatures or physical abuse of equipment is routine, have logical and cost-conscious reasons for selecting disk drives from companies such as Livermore, Calif.-based Memtech SSD Corp. The U.S. Navy uses the company's solid-state drives in its new Virginia class of nuclear attack submarines and in the catapult systems aboard aircraft carriers.

IT vendors for too long have tried to tell users that their wares provide a cachet that's akin to what automakers use to proffer 4-wheel-drive SUVs to soccer mums whose daily adventure is driving to the supermarket. To borrow from the military lexicon, it's overkill and obscures real need and price assessments, projecting a false sense of who we are and what we do.

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