Flash memory has taken over the world of consumer computing as the storage technology used in iPods, iPads, smartphones and digital cameras.
It is light, fast, energy-efficient and increasingly inexpensive when used in the comparatively small doses required by consumers.
Flash had made inroads in data-center computing, but mainly for specialized applications and in hybrid systems. What has held up the advance of flash for industrial-strength computing has been price. It has traditionally been 5 to 10 times more expensive to store a comparable chunk of data on flash than on hard disks.
But the cost handicap is eroding. And a start-up, Pure Storage, that is opening its business on Tuesday, makes a strong claim for the changing economics of flash.
It asserts that its flash-and-software technology can store data for less than the cost of hard-disk storage. In addition, data access and retrieval is 10 times faster, and its systems use 10 times less power and space than conventional hard-disk storage.
A couple of early customers are impressed, and so are a few analysts who got briefings recently.
Take Pure Storage’s claims with a large grain of salt, to be sure. But the company, founded in 2009 and based in Mountain View, Calif., points to the direction data-center storage is headed, whether Pure Storage is a big success or not.
Scott Dietzen, the chief executive, is refreshingly candid on that point. “Our recipe is not going to be unique to Pure for the long term,” he said. “But this change is going to come. This market is going to tip.”
Pure Storage is joining a growing crowd of start-ups seeking to bring flash storage to the data-center market. Their ranks include Violin Memory, Nimbus Data, Nimble Storage, Tintri and WhipTail Technologies.
Fusion i-o, a flash-storage start-up, had a successful public offering in June. And the giant of the data storage industry, EMC, has an initiative, called Project Lightning, to accelerate its move into flash.
For its part, Pure Storage has attracted ample funding: an additional $30 million fund-raising round announced on Tuesday brings its total to $55 million from venture capitalists, individual investors and Samsung, the big Korean maker of flash chips.
The company’s leadership team is deep in technical talent, with veteran experts in storage-management software and flash design from Veritas, Yahoo and Apple. Mr. Dietzen, a co-founder of Zimbra and former chief technology officer at BEA, holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon.
Pure Storage says it achieves gains in the economics of flash partly by using less-costly consumer-grade chips that are surrounded by smart software so its systems attain data-center-level reliability.
Second, Pure Storage has developed sophisticated software that reduces the amount of data that must be stored. This code parses the data coming in and recognizes duplicate blocks, so those do not have to be stored repeatedly. The technique is called in-line deduplication.
At Fenwick & West, a law firm based in Silicon Valley, the Pure Storage technology made it possible to store 50 to 90 percent less data than with conventional storage, said Matt Kesner, the chief information officer.
In test deployments of server applications like e-mail, the lawyers, who often send and open huge attachments, noticed the difference.
“For the users, everything happened instantaneously,” Mr. Kesner said, adding that when the test ended and the firm went back to the older storage technology, “the lawyers complained.”
At eMeter, which makes software for handling and analyzing the data flowing from utility smart meters, the Pure Storage flash systems sharply improved the computing performance on data-intensive chores. “We’re talking about pure speed and transfer rates,” said Bryan Bond, a senior systems administrator for eMeter.
Flash stores data in the cells of semiconductor chips instead of on spinning magnetic disks. The data-storing density of hard disks has improved at an extraordinary pace, like the exponential improvement in microprocessors over the years. But the performance bottleneck has been the scant improvement in the speed of finding and transferring the data from the spinning disks — the mechanical side of hard-disk storage.
As companies grapple with a flood of new data — from the Web, social networks, sensors and video — the constraint of traditional storage only becomes greater. That, analysts say, is a crucial reason flash will sooner or later become a mainstream technology in data centers.
“It will become increasingly difficult to do tomorrow’s work with today’s storage technology,” said Mark Peters, an analyst at Enterprise Storage, a research firm. “Flash is the only way to deal with big data-crunching challenges ahead.”