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Can you trust SSD market data?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - StorageSearch.com, February 12, 2013

This article looks at problems in the collection, analysis and interpretation of market data and reports about the SSD market.

In one way - a fast growing and disruptive market like SSDs is no different to any other technology business market - in that you need a lot of data to help guide you in rational decision making.

But the SSD market presents unique challenges in the areas of data collection, validation of interpretation, raw complexity, and interplay between different internecine competitive approaches which apparently compete for the same short term customers. Added together these factors make market models problematic.

Can you trust market reports and the handed down wisdom from analysts, bloggers and so-called "industry experts" any more than you can trust SSD benchmarks to tell you which product is best?

The short answer is - heck no! - whatever gave you that silly idea?

For a longer answer read my article below.

why go down this difficult road?

Alternative subtitle:- plowing the deep SSD market furrows - bad days in SSD - and where did that rock come from?

In this article I'm going to assume you have more than a passing curiosity and more likely a serious professional interest in the SSD market - otherwise you wouldn't still be here.

Understanding what's going on, and why, identifying the main SSD trends and companies which might affect your decisions and honing your skills at anticipating what might happen next (to get better control and results in your SSD projects) is what you do.

For many of you that serious interest in the world of SSDs means you may already have spent thousand of dollars on market reports from the many companies which offer such products.

Or it may mean you've spent hundreds of hours reading about SSDs online.

You spend a lot of time thinking about SSDs or talking about them.

Maybe you've gone to some conferences too.

Compared to where you started - there's no doubt that you've now advanced your thinking about the SSD market a considerable distance compared to where you started. And and compared to the world at large and in the circles in which you move - you are already an expert in many aspects of this SSD thing.

And some of you - I know - are running SSD businesses.

You eat drink and breathe SSD market data.

And a small number of you - are the people who compile those SSD market reports or write SSD market blogs and articles...

But one thing you've all got in common - in this context - is that from time to time - you encounter something from someone you regard as being a trusted SSD expert - which just doesn't sound right.

And while mostly - their content follows the tone and line of arguments you would be inclined to agree with - there's this bunch of assertions or ideas or comments or data - dropped in like a bad cut and paste job - which you feel in your bones is unsettling. It jars. It's a rock in your data furrow - which upto now had been looking pretty neat and tidy and heading slowly but surely in a generally forwards kind of direction.

And you wonder - as you step down to assess the damage from your heavily invested SSD data harvester:-

What's going wrong?

Is there more SSD stuff you've got to read?

Worse - is there more you've got to understand?

You wonder - is there another strand of SSD thinking - which the expert author of this report or blog - implicitly assumes you should already know?

What if - everyone else knows this - except you?

And if the said expert is right about this point (which is not exactly what you were anticipating from what you had been reading in the lead up to the bump) how confident can you be about all those other SSD related ideas which you thought you had already safely tucked in the ticked part of the SSD assimilation list? Do you have to go back to re-examine them too?

Just when you thought you had all the bases covered - you've hit something which dents your confidence. Just like when you started to learn about SSDs.

For anyone intensely involved in the SSD market - this kind of thing happens a lot.

bad SSD data day

And on a particularly bad SSD data day you may be inclined to ask yourself:-
  • what do I really know about the SSD market?
  • what are my safe assumptions?
  • in the event of major conflicts of opinion, market data and differences of interpretation - who can I trust?
  • how do I decide which way to go from here?
  • and - in extremis - is it time to update my profile on linkedin?
If it's any consolation - I see those same conflicting and contradictory SSD ideas and market data trends myself too. And while there can be valid market and technology directions which leading SSD companies themselves disagree about - many of these dissonances I encounter in the raw market stream of data I wade through every day (stats, reports, blogs, articles, opinion pieces, analysis and conversations) have a simple cause.

Someone got things wrong.

And the rest of this article will discuss the most likely reasons.

a brief note re - SSD market research philosophy

When you see the length of words which still flows below this point - you may be relieved to hear that to save time - I've decided to skip a "philosophical" discussion of why market reports and analysis can generally be wrong which might have included such questions as:-
  • why was the report written in the first place?
  • what was the raw data which influenced the findings?
  • how much did the report's authors understand the issues they were looking at in the first place? and
  • how closely did all those above choices and preconditioned biases align with your own unique needs for getting answers
In the real world you mostly have to rely on reports which were written for a general purpose - whereas each of you has a particular set of your own reasons why you're going through this stuff.

The original aims, interests, sentiments, aspirations, frameworks and methodologies of the report's authors are just as important to the validity of what you extract from reports and articles as any of the content - because they predefine the shape of what you see.

As a professional who leverages your understanding of the SSD market - you're continuously making judgements about how you weigh the significance of things you read from various SSD sources.

The acid test is this.

When you read something about the SSD market which you didn't know before - or which seems to contradict something which you previously held as a working hypothesis - what do you do next?
  • Accept the new statement for now?
  • Embark on more data searches - or dialog - to learn more one way or the other?
  • Disregard the offending data or observations - because you judge the author doesn't know as much about this as you do - or is writing from a viewpoint which isn't relevant to what you do.
It's the kind of thing you need to know if you're assessing a PhD - but we're not going to stretch this home page blog into 80,000 words. Not today - at any rate. (I'll do a wordcount check at the end - just to make sure I've kept my promise on this.)

Instead I'm going to list and talk about the 5 main practical reasons why things go wrong in the SSD market data collection, interpretation, modeling and analysis business.
  • the distorting lens of viewpoint
  • the brain busting factor of complexity
  • under counting and under sampling the vendor population
  • sampling the wrong people for customer related opinions
  • can you believe what real customers say? - sometimes yes - often no
the distorting lens of viewpoint

as in - "SSDs are similar to..."


When you first approach SSDs having a background in something else - there's a temptation to think - that some of what you see in the SSD market is like something you've seen or read about before - maybe in semiconductors, memories, computer hardware design, software or storage systems. But carrying over thinking from previous familiar and apparently closely related subjects - can lead you to conclusions and analysis which - in the world of SSDs - doesn't lead you to the right place.

That's one of the reasons that long established leading companies in hard drives and storage systems - such as Seagate and EMC didn't ignite the SSD market and were late adapting to the SSD market. SSDs are similar to HDDs and storage racks - but different.

And even chip companies like Intel, Micron and Samsung didn't drive the sharp end of SSD architecture innovation and high end customer adoption. SSDs are mostly made from chips - but being successful at designing and selling memory chips or processors didn't lead to automatic success in SSDs for these chipmakers.

For several years each of the above companies interpreted the SSD market's potential through the distorting lens of its similarity to what they had done before. This meant that for years they were doing the wrongs things (including nothing at all) even when seeing the same raw market data as other companies which got ahead of them in some aspects of the market.
  • Seagate initially saw SSDs as specialized - but more expensive versions of hard drives. And failing to understand that SSDs really were different HDDs- and might one day become a big market compared to hard drives - led the company to cling to the illusion for many years that a coping strategy would look something like hybrid drives.
  • EMC initially saw SSDs as just another kind of drive it could put into a JBOD or RAID. Even when sales people from the upstart Fusion-io invited EMC to the PCIe SSD water trough and gave them early versions of their PCIe SSD products to evaluate - EMC failed to understand the benefits of drinking this form of flash juice until many years later.
  • Samsung - earlier than other similar sized companies - said it recognized the potential of SSDs - but it learned the hard way that simply installing me-too SSDs in its own notebooks wasn't going to transform it into an SSD leader.
  • Intel assumed that because the world had followed its processor and interface standards for 30 years that it didn't have anything to learn from the new SSD market. But it did in every important respect - particularly in reliability and architecture.
  • Micron initially assumed that making flash and other non volatile memory meant it would automatically have advantages in SSDs. Instead - in the modern market - the supplier of the raw memory in SSDs has become almost irrelevant - as SSD designers have become more adept at virtualizing and managing the inherent design and process characteristics of memory and adapting to whatever the memory market can supply.
All the above named companies have since changed the way they engage with the SSD market - even though for many of them a key ingredient in their new emerging coping strategies has involved licensing and acquiring SSD technology from native SSD companies. You can see more details in their profile pages.

This part of the discussion is simply to show how strong can be the distorting effect of viewing the same SSD market reports and projections that were available to all companies - through their own lenses.

And everyone - whatever type of company they're in - including analysts - has to fight a distorting gravity well.

But that's not the end of the story - because - "SSDs are similar to..." - is just one of many possible market distortion lenses.

Other market filters and stances can be just as influential in altering and distorting how market data is reacted to:-
  • the lens of SSD IP - these are the limits set by our technology (unless we buy more)
  • the lens of investment - these are the limitations of what we're interested in based on the limits set by our funding
  • the lens of positioning - these are the (different) options we are interested in as an established leader, follower, or newcomer to the market
  • the lens of how much we (as a user) understand our own technology infrastructure and how much (or little) business advantage we think we can get by changing it
the brain busting factor of complexity

the SSD market is more complicated than previous technology markets


No one really understands the SSD market.

And the SSD market isn't a single cohesive entity.

Instead - what we're referring to - when we talk about the SSD market - is now a whole load of complicated markets and use cases with variable degrees of independence and interdependence which create the illusion of a looking like a big market which is called SSD (for convenience) - because the SSD sub markets use similar raw ingredients.

And some of the SSD products which satisfy some market segments - particularly some types of 2.5" SSDs and controllers - superficially look like they span a much wider range of use cases than they actually do. (Technically they can. Competitively they can't.)

I'm not going to list all the significant differences between different types of SSDs and application specific strengths and weaknesses here - because if you scroll down the home page of StorageSearch.com you'll see that I have identified more than enough to keep you busy reading for the next few weeks.

My point is this. It's possible to be an expert in one of the SSD market and be successful in that area - and yet be clueless or not really care about other significant parts of the SSD market at all.

One of the other reasons people get things wrong when analyzing what's happening in the SSD market is that it's really complicated. To understand the raw ingredients in the SSD market pot requires an acute awareness about the limitations of semiconductors, processors, interfaces, computer architecture, system software, apps software and economics - and how these factors interact in disruptive ways at internet market speeds.

At the extreme this is a market where almost anything is possible and a lot of different technology and business ideas are still being thrown at the wall in the hope they will stick. That means there are few real enduring certainties or rules which can be safely relied on.

As if that wasn't complicated enough - there's strong disagreement among different types of SSD companies themselves about the best way of doing things. (Among the many discussed in previous articles are disagreements things like
  • to what extent hard drives should be a part of the SSD ecosystem? - heavily weighted, some, none
So you could ask - how are analysts and other market commentators to make sense of all this? and how can people create a sense of order - out of what are in fact different chaotic SSD markets - which have similar internal technologies - and compete with each other as well as competing with traditional ways of doing things?

Even with the best intentions and starting points - and taking into account the distorting effects of what your starting position and long term interests may be - there are still other factors which can muddy the waters - and which at heart are very simple.

Under counting and under sampling data and influence from vendors

In traditional high tech markets (computers, storage, chips, comms, software etc) the custom and practice for compiling reports was - to collect data from a short list of what were assumed to be the top 6 to 10 companies in the market and extrapolate market trends from that.

It only works if those companies have been correctly identified in the first place - and if the shape of who those industry leaders are is relatively static (the usual suspects). But this approach fails in disruptive markets like SSD because the significant pressures which will change the market may be coming from companies which aren't in the sample list. It also results in an underestimate of the size of the market and risks missing entirely the identification of new use cases and market segments.

This isn't a new problem. I identified the same risks a decade ago in commenting on reports about storage arrays based on hard drives. In that case the only problem was undercalling the vendor headcount. But it didn't affect the shape of the market because every vendor was drawing from the same population of hard drives - and therefore the scope for doing something significantly different and innovative was minimal.

But this factor is a material risk in innovative markets - like SSD - in which the leading companies list is fluid. And I warned about the risks in my (2005) SSD market adoption article

More recently - in 2011 - commenting on a news story about an SSD market report from IDC - I said...

"What these types of reports can do is understate the market size of fast growing markets - because of sampling errors (such as excluding key players - who may not wish to participate in the data collection process) and also because of financial reporting time lags (which may provide indicators several quarters behind search-volume based reports).

"In the growth phase of a market - any type of consistently collated info is more useful than none. But perfect information about markets only exists when the markets are dead or have reached a steady state. Marketers who use these types of reports have to be aware that all market reports from all vendors have in-built flaws and biases."

This weakness in methodology - in the context of SSDs - is something which IDC has recently publicly acknowledged - and presumably will correct.

Lists such as StorageSearch.com's 6 year running Top SSD Companies List - means researchers have easy ways to speedily shortlist emerging disruptive companies based on leading adopter search volume - while the scrutiny offered by the growing financial value of established SSD companies makes it easier than ever before to identify candidates at the other end of the size scale too.

Sampling the wrong people for customer related opinions about the SSD market

The symptom goes like this. XYX market research company asked 300 people (or 50 or 1,000) what they think about the SSD market and what they aim to do about it?

I read the report - and see a lot of extrapolated nonsense which doesn't sound like any version of reality with which I'm familiar - yet because the raw data is based on a questionnaire and is reporting what real people think - the results are publicized as having a special validity in their predictive assertions.

Yeah - that's just about as valid and useful as when the banks in the pre-credit crunch era rolled up a load of inappropriately sold mortgages, renamed them as high grade CLOs and sold them on to other banks.

Freedom of speech and thought are sacrosanct values - but just because you've asked a bunch of people what they think about something doesn't mean that's what's happening.
  • Who are these people you sampled?
  • Where did they come from?
  • How engaged are they - in fact with the topic of SSDs?
  • Are they in fact the people who have been doing things in the SSD market?
Although many of these reports are entertaining, well written and stylishly presented - the market-wide validity of inferences drawn by researchers from such reports are questionable - because the sample came from some trade show or conference or online publication where the core draw subject was something else - and not SSDs.

can you believe what customers say?

Traditional market research theory says that there's nothing better you can do to understand what's going on than talk to your customers.

But how true is this for the SSD market?

Sometimes it works - and you can get some valuable insights which change the products you offer.

That's what happened when Fusion-io did market research into its own base of enterprise customers. The result - as recounted to me by Fusion-io's CMO Rick White - was they identified a special group of super-user SSD customers - who were using FIO's PCIe SSDs - but whose detailed needs for product functionality were materially different to their other SSD customers.

These super-users already had installed thousands of the company's SSDs (or had the potential to do so) and they were willing to invest technical expertise to tweak the products to optimize them for their main apps. Many of the so-called enterprise wraparound features offered in FIO's standard offering to the market either weren't needed or weren't valued by these users who had their own way of managing things - and were less interested in following legacy enterprise models than getting the best results from their massive SSD investments.

It's these super-user customers which have been catered to with the release of special products like ioScale (low cost PCIe SSDs evolved from Fusion-io's consumer / workstation family) and also the ION software (which converts a bunch of PCIe SSDs and a server into a SAN compatible SSD rack).

I was dismayed to read analysts talking seriously about the ION software as if it was something aimed at mainstream SAN SSD customers. These commentators missed the point. The value to FIO of this product line wasn't in thousands of customers who might buy a small number of systems each. It was in a small number of customers who each had the potential to buy thousands of SSD racks.

Another interesting thing happened when SanDisk started talking to enterprise SSD customers using the channel of their FlashSoft acquisition - which as Rich Petersen (former VP of Marketing at FlashSoft and now Director, Marketing Management at SanDisk) told me is now the company's center of market intelligence in strategic enterprise SSD related stuff.

SanDisk learned that despite their position in the flash market - their biggest potential customers had already made investments in other people's enterprise SSDs - and they could see apps in which that would continue to be a better option for them. So - whereas they liked SanDisk SSDs for some use cases and they liked the potential of SanDisk's VMware vSphere - they weren't going to invest in more than one core SSD software platform.

The result? - SanDisk learned it could sell more enterprise SSDs if its software also supported competing hardware. That's not what they originally had in mind - but was a necessary condition to being accepted by large enterprise users who have diverse needs and already have their own SSD history.

But lest you fall into the trap of thinking you've now found the key to getting reliable SSD market - this is the point where I say that - SSD customers don't always know best.

The incorrect identification of SSD competitors occurs commonly in reader emails and SSD investment blogs. And the roots go right back to customers themselves - as learned when I asked Thomas Isakovich, CEO of Nimbus Data Systems why he had listed a set of vendors in a presentation by the company as their main competitors.

"Because those are the competitors mentioned most often in customer feedback of which other vendors users were looking at" - was the answer.

But as I pointed out - users themselves aren't always the most reliable source of competitive information - because in the case of systems purchases - because the users are dipping into the market and sampling what's available for only as long as it takes to satisfy their immediate needs.

It's all too easy for users to compile short lists of SSD vendors which aren't ideal for their needs - but it doesn't matter as long as at least one or more of the vendors in the list can meet their needs.

That's not the same as saying that all those other vendors are natural competitors.

Often they are just companies which make SSDs with a similar form factor - but which are optimized for different apps and architecture silos.

Being more aware that these problems exist - and are widespread will arm you better in your search for SSD knowledge and ongoing data accumulation and sifting activities and may help you to better recognize which conflicting information nuggets you can trust more and which you can trust less - or safely disregard entirely.

Summary

I could have written much more - but this is where I'm going to stop. And as promised above - the wordcount was considerably less than 80,000 words.

A rational and pro-active defense strategy for leveraging SSD market data is to become your own expert in the area of expertise where you spend most of your time.

Learn to make your own market models and predictions and then review them regularly.

As time passes you'll increase your confidence and maybe even make decisions with better outcomes. Good luck.

Can you trust market reports and the handed down wisdom from analysts, bloggers and so-called "industry experts" any more than you can trust SSD benchmarks to tell you which product is best?

You've seen what I think.

If you've got your own blog or twitter channel and feel like this subject needs an airing with even more words than I used already - I look forward to seeing what you say.

Thanks for your time.

further suggested reading

SSD history
the SSD Bookmarks
Recent Strategic Transitions in SSD
Where are we now with SSD software?
about the publisher of StorageSearch.com
Historical Perspectives - on the SSD market
SSDs - list of recommended market analysts
Can you tell me the best way to SSD Street?
exploring the limits of the market in your head
7 ways to classify where all enterprise SSDs will fit
Another list of storage market research companies
A new way of looking at the Enterprise SSD market
The big market gravitational impact of SSD dark matter
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SSD ad - click for more info
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"To be frank - using revenue based reports to guide your way ahead in a fast growing market like SSDs is about as sensible as driving fast down the highway and steering ahead by what you see in the rearview mirror."
Editor's comments (July 2008) in the the Top 10 SSD OEMs - 2008 Q2 edition

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SSD ad - click for more info

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Brand awareness, financial reports and online search data - intrinsically provide different numerically weighted views of the same market.

And which methodology you prefer depends on whether your priority is in understanding the past, present or future - and what it is you're trying to decide.
re - SSD brand leaders - from IT Brand Pulse (July 2014 )




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We can't afford NOT to be in the SSD market...

But don't ask how we're going to make money out of it yet. (Or this year or next...)

Coz we're going to do it anyway.
hostage to the fortunes of SSD

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SSD ad - click for more info





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One of the challenges for the enterprise SSD market when designing new rackmount products is to understand complex customer needs and decision criteria - which go beyond the traditional marketing bullet points.

New segmentation models are needed because the enterprise SSD market is moving into uncharted territories and use cases where a considerable proportion of the customer needs which affect buying behavior are still formally unrecognized as being significant (in market research data).
Decloaking hidden segments in the enterprise





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SSD ad - click for more info





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When you include hundreds of products in such a guide from all known vendors - then the sampling process is transparent (and those not in the guide - need to make better efforts to communicate with their market) but when you have a guide which samples only a small percentage of vendors then inevitably questions get asked about how those in the sample were chosen.
re - DCIG's AFA Buyers Guide (September 2015 )





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Jim Handy discusses the paradox of many competing vendors all claiming to be #1 in flash arrays
Editor:- May 29, 2015 - A new blog - Who's #1 in Flash Arrays? - by Jim Handy - founder Objective Analysis - discusses a "puzzling set of claims" by various competing rackmount SSD companies - who all claim to be #1 in the flash array market. ...read the blog

Editor's comments:- Jim's observations provides fresh examples and confirmation of 2 things I warned you about in earlier articles:-
  • "The distorting lens of viewpoint" etc - discussed in the article on the left of this page.






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I was talking to an end user whose organization has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on EMC storage.

They'd love to decouple themselves and benefit from modern lower cost flash. But the flash marketers in startups aren't doing those kinds of conversations.

For many of them a single customer like that is bigger than their whole business plan.
the unreal positioning of many flash array "startups"





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"The user mood is changing from - can I afford to use SSDs? to a realization that - I can't afford not to."
where does all the money go?





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"Gartner 's Magic Quadrant for all-flash storage arrays is based on criteria that hamstring vendors and reduce customer choice...

"In talking to senior executives at several storage vendors, I've discovered that these frankly stupid criteria are not just keeping products off the Magic Quadrant, but also keeping more flexible products off the market."
Howard Marks in his blog - Gartner All-Flash Array Magic Quadrant: A Bad Influence (June 2015)





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90% of the enterprise SSD companies which you know have no good reasons to survive.
this way to market consolidation





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"Theres a natural business reaction to want to see a new entrant through the lens of a subset of your existing market. Once you can do that you get more comfortable doing battle in a small way rather than head-on. You feel your market size will trump a niche player.

"The problem is that such perspective assumes a static view of the market. Youre assuming that all the other attributes of your implementation will remain advantaged and the new competitor will fail to translate that single advantage into a broader attack."
Steven Sinofsky, Board Partner - Andreessen Horowitz- in his blog - Blackberry and the Lesson of "Don't forget all the parts move" (May 23, 2015 )





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more articles on StorageSearch.com
the Survivor's Guide to Enterprise SSDs - a list of do's and don'ts

Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing - Justifying the cost of enterprise SSDs was often muddled and confusing because many vendors used arguments which were untrue, inconsistent, irrational or lacked data - due to the fact they didn't understand the customer experience. What's changing? Pricing models which don't depend on perfect information.

what do enterprise SSD users want? - and why aren't vendors asking.

how fast can your SSD run backwards? - 11 Key a/Symmetries in SSD design

The big market impact of SSD dark matter - some of the very biggest direct customer opportunities for SSDs aren't the big name computer and storage oems.

Where are we now with SSD software? - (And how did we get into this mess?)

adaptive R/W flash care management IP (including DSP) for SSDs - what is it? and who does it? This will be a disruptive transition.

enterprise SSDs - exploring the limits of the market in your head - is about enterprise SSD futurology.

Can you tell me the best way to SSD Street? - I'm like the Old Woman of the SSD Village who talks to everyone that passes through. No wonder I have a unique perspective. It would be strange if I didn't.

comparing the SSD market today to earlier tech disruptions - applying a sense of perspective to what's happening now with SSDs



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how fast can your SSD run backwards?
11 Key Symmetries in SSD design



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SSD ad - click for more info



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Every year I learn 2 new important new ideas about SSDs. But every year I also have to remember to forget or discard 1 old idea which was vital to know before because it's no longer useful, valid or true
what changed in SSD year 2013? / 2014? / 2015?