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why the notebook SSD crystal ball is still murky

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor
Editor:- September 2, 2010 - this week a reader (Andrew Hancox) sent me a list of 10 key questions about the future of the SSD market.

As I'd already answered most of them to some degree in articles my reply was mostly a list of links.

His 1st question was - "How long do you think it will be before the pricing of SSDs comes down to a level where they are a viable option to be used as primary drives in portable devices for mainstream consumers?"

I've been answering that question in articles for 5 years - starting with my SSD market penetration model, numerous comments on the notebook SSD page, quotes from other SSD analysts and comments in past news pages - but I've never been able to give a deterministic number because there are parameters involved which depend on vendors in the market changing their behavior.

Here's what I actually said in my email reply - "A big obstacle is not media pricing - but how well the SSD design is integrated in the notebook motherboard design. Nearly all current notebook designs are adapted from HDD designs. Adding SSDs into them wastes most of the potential benefits of the SSD. That's why this is taking years longer than it should have done... "

Thinking back on my replies to readers I'm never really sure how well they have been understood. That's because SSD education is a big issue.

Now when I talk about "motherboard design" that's the electronics and computer architect in me talking in a code language which translates as - the design of most notebooks is a mismatch for getting the best out of SSDs. Most notebook vendors are too lazy to design new SSD notebook products - so instead they integrate me-too SSDs into me-too HDD-centric notebook designs - to get results which fail to inspire anyone. Then they complain that the market projections for SSD adoption in notebooks didn't come true.

This morning I thought of a good analogy for what's been happening in the notebook SSD market.

Imagine that Henry Ford - had looked at the horse drawn carriage market and the internal combustion engine - and had decided to design mechanical horses (powered by the new engines) which were then coupled to a coach in the traditional way.

There you have today's notebook SSD market...

From the viewpoint of the horseless carriage customer it's an expensive novelty. The engine is whirring as fast as it can - but those clippety cloppety legs in the mechanical horse can't run any faster. The coach rolls along and it's an impressive sight but also a waste of internal combustion engine horsepower. This will never become a mass market.
click to see Notebook SSDs article and directory Most notebooks today completely waste the potential horsepower of SSDs. How can you predict when notebook marketers and designers will stop being stupid? That's where my crystal ball fails.
...Later:- I got this follow up question from another reader Robert Young

What's missing from your article is the completion of the analogy: in what specific way does an SSD/notebook combination happen which is the analog to Ford's automobile (_not_ putting the engine in the horses)?

How does this differ from what's happened with desktop/server machines? Near as I can see, all three types of machines implement SSD as HDD, and in the same way: SATA.

The only SSD specific support I know of is in linux. The btrfs filesystem, not yet fully implemented, here's one article.

Editor's reply:- the motherboard chipsets translate the disk I/O requests from memory into SATA then inside the SSD back again from SATA into memory I/O in the flash. So a lot of hard disk world simulation occurs which adds to latency, makes reliability worse and slows down throughput. True SSD notebooks would have the flash arrays directly accessible as in Fusion-io's iodrives.

...a few days later:-

Editor's follow up reply:- I forgot to mention that in an earlier article I pointed out the differences between notebook and PC/server motherboard designs when it comes to the ability to use Legacy SSDs (like SATA). it's at the bottom of this article -

Notebook controller chips are chosen to have just enough speed to do the intended job. This minimizes power consumption and reduces the price of the chips. The result is that the performance headroom in these chipsets is much more constrained than with servers and desktop PCs.

So when you add a fast SATA SSD to most notebooks - the intermediate notebook chips waste the SSD's potential performance as seen by the host CPU. You pay good money for low latency in the SSD - but the notebook chips add latency back and slug the SSD performance - because they were designed to be good enough for (slower) hard drives where these factors were not so critical.

If someone wants to add an SSD to a notebook despite those reservations - it's best to choose a notebook which was designed to work with a 7,200 RPM HDD - if you're using SATA SSDs - or better still - one of the many variants of mini PCIe.

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