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beginner's guide to semiconductor memory boom-bust cycles

a simple explanation of this often repeated historic drama for newcomers to the SSD market, along with a cautionary footnote about SSD's own future
by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - Februrary 11, 2016
I recently discussed the memory boom bust cycle with a non technical reader who asked me to explain why high volume semiconductor memory makers get into the situation of oversupply and lossy pricing.

Here's some of what I said.

The semiconductor memory business has wavered between under supply and over supply since the 1970s.

In the 1980s the best analagy was what economists called the "hog cycle".

But any study of memory market history for the past 40 years shows that there are also other competitive factors involved.

Simplest example – when suppliers choose to use price as a way to gain advantages in the market.

But another factor is that memory is not a usable product by itself. And memory technologies have to be designed to be optimal for end markets.

Memory makers have to guess years in advance what the mix of products in the market will be to ensure they will get a share of the end market.

If they get those guesses wrong – there is under / over supply – which impacts prices.

The investments which have to be made in manufacturing plants are huge and take place years in advance of even knowing in detail what the detailed mix of products will be.

Memory makers mitigate their risks by choosing manufacturing processes which have flexibility. (For example the ability to switch between making DRAM or nand flash using the same equipment). But even with long term roadmaps such plans can go wrong.

For example - sometimes technologies are harder to get working.

As a sanity check – FYI the entire SSD market wasn't in any memory maker's technology road map until recently. But it affects everything they now do.

In the long term – the risk of being uncompetitive (no one buys the memory and you certainly go bust) or the fear of being locked out of the SSD market counts as worse score than temporarily having too much product at too low a price. Because being in the game means you will get another opportunity to supply memory and adjust product lines in the next memory boom cycle.

You wouldn't believe how much data the memory people suck in and analyze.

The problem is they are disconnected from the end markets and because of that cannot make optimal judgements.

They're also biased by their interpretation of how they managed risks and investments in the past.

That's one reason why all the big companies will want to become enterprise storage box suppliers. (It's more than branding, and involves assumptions about being able to raise the revenue ceiling from the same raw flash while also racking up incremental design efficiency gains which are only possible at scale.)

But the memory makers don't understand enough at present to make it work. And they may have the wrong cultures too.

If the market stabilizes as I predict in this article then the enterprise SSD market may become as predictable as the PC and server market were in earlier decades.

But we're nowhere near that yawn-inducing stability yet.

Instead we need to go through some more rounds of extreme instability first.

(Because as I said a year ago (in 2015) - "I don't think we've reached stability in reference enterprise SSD designs and use cases"

Later:- as you'd expect with such a vast topic - the boom and bust business cycles in memory have been analyzed and dissected many times before.

Here are some links I found later which provide helpful guidance for those - like my reader - who want to get a better feel without being buried by semiconductor concepts.

For historic reasons - most such discussions focus on DRAM - because that was the dominant memory revenue earner in earlier decades - but the memory type makes absolutely no difference to the principles.
  • The life cycle of memory generations is related to price and volume in - DRAM Pricing - a white paper (2002) on the web site of Tezzaron - which says - "this life-cycle has been repeated often enough to exhibit some predictable patterns."

    I would encourage anyone (even experienced semiconductor veterans) to note the 8 patterns listed. This list includes almost everything you need to know to understand what drives the predictable aspects of memory market behavior.
What's the relationship between the memory market and the SSD market?

The relationship between the SSD market and raw memory market has changed over time and will change significantly again.

Before the enterprise flash era you could go far in understanding the pricing models and cost base of SSD products based on an understanding of the raw memory market - because memory was one of the main ingredients of cost. Also in those earlier days - SSD market revenue was so insignificant in comparison to the raw memory market - that SSD-specific requirements did not in any way influence the behavior of memory companies.

From 2007 it started to become clear that controller architecture could play a bigger part in the SSD pricing equation than memory - and by 2011 the activity in the market (measured by product success) showed clearly that SSD-aware software too had the potential to differentiate SSD products in business ways which de-emphasized the role which memory played in characterizing SSDs (in nearly all markets).

And in 2012 I commented on this paradign shift in my end of year analysis in these words... "A safe rule of thumb is that knowing the generic memory type characteristics doesn't give you enough useful info about the SSD's characteristics and limitations any more. Whereas only a few years ago - knowing the exact memory type was an essential starting point in understanding the SSD."

Looking ahead (from today in 2016) to the long term future for the memory market - the same kind of conclusion I analyzed for the hard drive market in my 2012 article How will the HDD market fare... in an SSD storage world? - which I summarized as... "the SSD market will be bigger in revenue than the HDD market ever was" is likely to hold true for the semiconductor memory market too. That is to say - "SSD market revenue will be a much bigger (high multiple in revenue) of the raw memory market.

But it is by no means inevitable that the biggest memory companies will become the biggest SSD companies.

I discussed the strategic business pressures (for memory, HDD, storage and server makers - who all face similar disruptive challenges) in my 2013 article - hostage to the fortunes of SSD.

What relevance does this have to this article about memory boom bust cycles?

It's not safe that they will be closely tied to future SSD boom bust cycles.

I already discussed the potential of next generation SSD software adoption to result in segment-specific crashes in SSD revenue in my 2013 article - meet Ken - and the enterprise SSD software event horizon. We've already seen this type of thing happening. This lesson is an extrapolation from real vendor revenue experiences - not just a blue sky what-if?

So you can take the "SSD software event horizon" as an extreme market boundary condition factor whereby future SSD busts could become even more distantly connected to raw memory production costs.

And here's a simpler example of memory to SSD business disconnect.

A big collapse in memory prices could be seen as a good thing by independent SSD companies (which don't have their own memory wafer fabs) because low memory prices may help the SSD makers to open up new markets.

I'll just conclude this by saying:- SSDs (with the right software and architecture and ecosystem context) have roles which can sometime be equivalated to storage, processors and memory. But because SSDs enable a wider range of potentially competitive data system implementations than were ever before possible before (the modern era of SSDs) it's unwise to analyze and project SSD business models simply by parachuting in models from other previous (and deceptively) similar markets.
Retiring and retiering enterprise DRAM...

what are the underlying reasons that will enable slower cheaper memory (like nand flash) to replace most of the future DRAM market without applications noticing?
latency loving reasons for fading out DRAM

SSD ad - click for more info

.... / popular SSD articles / SSD market history
a question about memory boom bust

"I would be the last person to say this isn't a cyclical business because the one thing that suppliers will never be able to control is the demand environment and as you know we're in a very capital-intensive business.

So, once you have the capacity then almost no circumstances will you choose not to produce because you have a very, very high fixed cost structure and so the industry responded appropriately to the weakening PC demand environment and first nobody added capacity, and secondly, we all shifted our output to those more lucrative segments... "
Ernie Maddock, CFO - Micron (January 10, 2017) at Micron Presents at Needham Growth Conference (transcript - by - in reply to a question about the cyclical nature of the memory business and similarities to the previous 2014 cycle.

SSD ad - click for more info

Ironically, DRAM producers' entrance into flash memory production actually contributed to defeating their original purpose for entering: flash memory's average selling price dropped below that of DRAM in 2006 due to oversupply.

Estimating proper supply for the flash memory market is complicated by the unpredictable nature of flash memory demand it is unclear what consumers will deem the next great gadget to drive the market, and when it will appear.
The Rise of the Flash Memory Market: Its Impact on Firm Behavior and Global Semiconductor Trade Patterns - 1990 to 2007 (pdf) (USITC site). This document also includes flash market revenue from 1990 to 2007.

As companies invest in new fabrication facilities to produce new technologies, the risks inherent in these business investments continue to increase.

In 1983, it cost $200 million to manufacture 1,200-nanometer chips in a leading-edge semiconductor facility.

In 1997, it cost approximately $1.3 billion for a 350-nanometer facility, and in 2003, it cost as much as $3 billion for a 130- nanometer facility.
Semiconductor Manufacturing: Booms, Busts, and Globalization (2005) - article in The Bridge, (NAE site )

This chart shows memory prices (various technologies) plotted over time from 1957-2015.
Memory Prices (1957-2015) by Professor John C. McCallum (retired)

RAM used to be components:- SRAM, DRAM etc. Now after 8 years of the PCIe SSD market learning curve experience we have to entirely rethink the RAM concept.
what's RAM really? - RAM in an SSD context

In the year 2000 no one caught a cold from the Y2K bug - but 3 things did happen which would shape enterprise server performance for the next 16 years.

1 - hard drives reached the latency limit set by waiting for a 15K RPM rotating platter (they never got faster)

2 - 64 bit processor clock speeds reached almost their maximum clock speeds (they got more cores but the cores didn't get faster)

3 - in the RAM market - the fastest server motherboard memory latencies in 2000 were very similar to what they are today (in 2016)

We all know that SSDs came to the rescue of latency constrained advances in computing which had been stalled by (1) and (2) above.

With some help from software the next target is (3).

Why's DRAM so bad?

Most of us thought that DRAM was the gold standard for latency you can rely on (unlike that cheap flipperty gibbet flash).
DRAM's indeterminate latencies and the virtual memory slider mix - a new blog (March 2016) from

So why does Micron want more RAM capacity?

A semi-serious interpretation might be - it's a poison pill. Who would want to buy a RAM company?

Another interpretation is that - by paying a premium price for Inotera - Micron is saying it is worth more too.
Micron's $3 billion gamble on Inotera (December 17, 2015)

You can't optimize the value of raw flash without good controllers and software.

Weve seen compelling evidence in the SSD market that the companies which design memories are not the best at extracting the value from what they make.

Despite many acquisitions the odds are stacked against the memory companies being able to fix these IP deficits internally. They dont have the internal pressure and they dont have external market knowledge they need.

The emergence of NVMdurance for example shows that a parrallel universe exists of unsatisfied alternate routes through the maze of endurance permutations with shipping and future flash memory.' s editor (August 2016) in reply to questions about the market.

90% of the enterprise SSD companies which you know have no good reasons to survive.
market consolidation - why? how? when?

4 Semi Kings Joust for 1 Crown... who's going to win?
seeking semico SSD REX (May 2010)