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Booting up a dialog about the future of PCIe SSDs

Editor:- July 24, 2012 - Texas Memory Systems has joined the bootable enterprise PCIe SSD set. This feature is now available in all new RamSan-70 models - and is also available as a firmware upgrade.

Editor's comments:- Bootability in PCIe SSDs is a useful thing to have for some types of applications although it's not a new idea. Companies like OCZ - whose PCIe SSDs are arrays of small architecture controllers have offered bootability for years leveraging 2.5" SSD technology.

TMS wrote a whole press release about this - because they thought it was a big deal being the first big controller architecture SSD companies to offer it.

But when I spoke to Erik Eyberg at TMS about this yesterday - I said while I could see that it might make a difference to TMS's business having this feature - because it would open up new design slots - I didn't think that many other editors would be interested - and maybe only about 10 readers.

I explained that I expect that all PCIe SSDs will have bootability in a few years - as part of adapting to the needs of the 2.5" PCIe SSD market. So I said - can we talk about something else instead?

I ask nearly everyone who designs SSD hardware what they're doing about adaptive DSP IP in SSDs. So I started with that - although it mainly affects a segment of the enterprise SSD market - fast-enough SSDs - which TMS hasn't been traditionally associated with.

TMS has been generally conservative about its use of flash and Erik said that while they're talking to a lot of memory companies about their roadmaps TMS SSDs mostly use older 32nm geometries - therefore the DSP techniques aren't yet a must-have item.

I suggested that some memory makers will simply remarket leading edge flash but with "enterprise" R/W characteristics evolved from DSP IP - so they could charge a higher price - as with eMLC. And that increases the designer's range of options even more.

I also asked Erik if TMS had looked at the 2.5" PCIe SSD market yet - because having bootability meant there was no impediment to doing that (provided they could squeeze in enough memory chips around their fat controllers in that confined space to make it worthwhile.)

Erik said TMS has experimented with smaller SSD form factors in their labs - but it's not on their immediate product horizon.

Erik asked me what I thought would happen to the PCIe SSD market? - Did I think it would eventually be dominated by the semiconductor companies?

That was a good question...

I said I had thought that might happen - when I was first asked this question about 4 years ago - but the PCIe SSD market didn't go that way - and now that the picture of what a PCIe SSD has to do is much clearer - I considered it even less likely that the semi companies would dominate - although they might get lucky and score well in a couple of big oem slots and be among the leading vendors in 1 or 2 memory generations.

I said there's too much software and complicated systems engineering needed to design a good enterprise SSD.

The guys who run memory companies already have difficult jobs. They have to understand business cycles, big investments and memory roadmaps. That's difficult enough to fit in one brain. Until SSDs are the biggest outlet for their memories - they won't manage the SSD businesses as well as pure play SSD companies - who aren't tied to fabs.

Also - I said - chipmakers have historically been really bad at software. Even if they buy an SSD hardware IP company or a bunch of SSD software companies - after 9 months to 2 years - the hot talent will get fed up and leave.

I've said before (on these pages and in conversation with these companies) that the big semi companies may have to buy maybe 5 or 6 SSD IP companies as part of their SSD learning experience - and even then - if their own memory is late to market - then a competitor who isn't tied to one bunch of fabs can deliver a better SSD to the market which is cheaper to make.

And another thing is - even if SSDs rate high enough attention in the memory company - who's going to call the shots? The consumer or enterprise groups? They have very different needs to make them work.

I said to Erik - that in another (human) generation - when you have SSD people running memory companies - that's when they might start to dominate the PCIe SSD market.

Until then - and for the forseeable future - it will be a diverse set of companies with different slants which satisfy different segments within the PCIe SSD market or whatever repalces it. (That's going to be the theme of a future article BTW - SSD actors in search of a play.)

Erik and I also talked about the importance of low latency and some of the various ways to do it. He said the experience of TMS is that it's very rare among the customers they talk to - that they would be willing to risk the lock-in of using new APIs just to get more performance.

I said it's not surprising - because on the legacy vs new dynasty divide - TMS's products are legacy. But I think the market for green field new solid state storage businesses and apps will make the new dynasty market just as big - and maybe in the long term bigger too than legacy storage.

In the meantime vendors which offer SSDs for each of these markets don't really compete head to head - even if the performance of their products looks similar.

And that's how a 45 second conversation about bootable PCIe SSDs grew into 45 minutes of something else.

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