Three years ago, Delaware, Ohio, had a data storage problem. Users weren’t frustrated by a lack of capacity, however. The issue was how long it was taking to access files off of the city’s server. But after moving to a flash-based system, city employees have been computing in the fast lane.

By moving the city’s GIS, Microsoft Exchange, various databases and other applications over to flash storage, access time to archived emails sped up dramatically from minutes to seconds. In addition, processing time for reports improved and Delaware’s CIO was able to reduce the overall number of servers in the city’s data center, reducing cooling costs.

Most computer users are familiar with a common form of flash storage: thumb drives. But flash also exists as enterprise-class array-based systems. Unlike traditional hard drives that feature spinning disks, solid-state flash drives contain no moving parts, resulting in quicker access to data and a fraction of the energy use.

As GIS data, email archives and information from various other databases and applications grew in Delaware, access time slowed, causing report delays and other efficiency issues for city employees. In fact, according to CIO Timothy Howard, prior to moving to flash, it took some users up to two hours to pull data needed for projects.

That changed once the city moved to an Accela flash-based storage array from Whiptail, a digital storage provider. In addition to increasing data access speed, Howard was able to trim his application server footprint from 12 physical servers to four and more economically plan his replacement cycle.

Currently, Howard has a couple of databases and most of the city’s virtual desktops running off of flash storage. Delaware’s primary Exchange database is also on flash so that the city manager, chief financial officer and other municipal leaders have quick response times when going through their email.

The smaller size of flash storage has also helped Howard streamline the city’s data center.

“I had two racks and one of the racks is now almost completely empty because I’ve just taken out several older hard drive appliances and put them in a [disaster recovery] site for us,” Howard said. “I back up to those now, instead of using those as my frontline storage.”

Is Flash Reliable?

While the benefits of flash data storage sound great, there were some initial concerns with the technology, particularly as a reliable alternative to traditional, mechanical hard drives.

Initially, the systems cost significantly more than spinning hard drives, making investment for smaller government agencies more difficult. In addition, solid-state disks (SSDs) have been criticized for wearing out quicker than spinning drives.

Howard is confident the flash system will hold up throughout the city’s three- to five-year replacement cycle for the drives. In three years, he's lost one flash-based drive, which he said is about the same rate or a little bit better than what he’s averaged with spinning hard drives.

Despite the advantages of flash, Howard doesn’t see traditional hard drives being phased out any time soon. He continues to use them for bulk file structures, including city employee documents and spreadsheets.

Howard explained that for approximately 200 users, he doesn’t see the need to burn eight terabytes of flash storage for an application that doesn’t struggle with speed. Combining a couple of spinning drives with up to three terabytes of storage running at about 7,200 RPMs gets the same job done for less money.

It’s the spinning drives that hold up to 600 terabytes of data and run at 15,000 RPM that Howard feels are on the way out.

“I can’t fill the storage up, because I can’t deliver the speed I need on the backend," Howard said. “I’ve seen that middle tier of 15k drives go way down. If I need that much speed, I stick them on my Whiptail. If I just need bulk data space, I put them on a couple of 7,200 RPM drives. If there’s enough cache on the appliances, I can drive the speed I need for those.”

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Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.