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2009 - Year of SSD Market Confusion?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor

This article - written and published just before 2009 began - offered my speculations about the important trends we might expect to see in 2009. It was updated throughout 2009 with snippets related to those predictions. For a timeline and summary of what did happen in the SSD market in 2009? - see 2009 SSD history.

2009 - Year of SSD Market Confusion?

When I summarized the most important developments in 2007 - I called it the "Year of SSD Revolutions". Solid State Storage remained the most exciting and fastest changing part of the storage market in 2008 too. I wondered - is there a simple way of summing up the most important SSD market developments in 2008? And just as important - is it possible to make any useful predictions for what may happen in 2009?

In many ways the SSD market resembles the wild west - with a range of completely different technologies, architectures, interfaces and form factors all clamoring for attention - and saying "Look at me! I'm best."

So - in 2008 - it wasn't surprising to see some would-be sheriffs riding into town - in the shape of various industry trade ORGs - trying to bring some law and order into the chaotic new SSD territories. These included the SSD Alliance , JEDEC and SNIA. They may achieve some measure of success in the long term - but they're recently arrived strangers in this town - just like everyone else.

I think the lawman's lonely task in the wild west SSD town can be likened to that of the wrangler he meets in the stable.

The wrangler has been told to brand all the horses in the livery. Only trouble is - they have already bolted. So he's got to round them up again. But he faces the problem that no one can agree on what the boss's horses actually looked like - or which way they were headed when they ran off.

I talk to a lot of SSD companies, users, analysts and VCs looking at the SSD market - and one thing that is clear - is that there is no single technology, vendor, approach or solution that is going to dominate the market. I should mention here that not everyone agrees with this. And in fact several vendors have already announced they each expect to get 50% of the future market for SSDs. In my view those claims are ridiculous and mostly go to show how little the SSD product marketers in those companies actually understand the complexities of this market.

Instead of a homogenous SSD market dominated by BIG- BRAND-X - I think you're going to see what looks like a confusing heterogeneous picture developing in which multiple SSD solutions co-exist in the market - and apparently address identical application needs. There will be a lot of like and unlike SSDs which can do the same job - but which (internally) are architected in completely different ways. I explained some of the reasons for this - in a recent article about the rackmount SSD market. And you're going to see similar confusion of choice all the way down to standalone SSD chips for mobile devices. As I've said in many recent discussions - customers have widely different risk / reward / competence / convenience profiles - so there's no such thing as a single ideal solution. That's what makes this market so interesting.

Translating this into specifics - it does mean that you're going to see proprietary and open architecture SSD arrays going for the same market. You are also going to see computer bus SSDs (like PCIe) and storage bus SSDs (SATA, FC etc) apparently targeting similar customers. And you will see an even greater proliferation of form factors - including more flash storage mounted directly on motherboards - in notebooks (such as Intel's Z-P230) and servers too (such as flash EcoRAM from Spansion) . And you're going to see more choices in complex OS-agnostic but value conscious hybrids.

So what else happened in 2008? - Although most of the SSD market developments in the year were evolutionary rather than revolutionary - there were some real surprises - even for me.

Back in 2007 the best ratio of sustainable reads to write IOPS in fast enterprise flash SSDs was about 10 to 1. I thought it would be another year or so before that got much better than 5 to 1. But I was wrong. Because in 2008 Violin Memory launched a flash SSD which closed that gap down to 2 to 1 and also introduced the idea that a flash SSD can do an immediate (non blocked) read from a virtual address region which has just been written to. I thought 2 to 1 was a major advance until Fusion-io unveiled more details of its own SSD - which pretty much delivers R/W IOPS parity.

Once you learn how these things have been achieved (often under NDA) the overall product features make more sense. In several phone conversations with vendors this year - I've had Eureka moments - and commented on the cleverness of their design "tricks". I've rightly received mild verbal chastisement - explaining that many of these "tricks" are actually the subjects of patents - and that a whole bunch of other tricks and years of effort from tricky designers with PhDs have gone into these new products. It's easy for commentators like me to see clearly when we're standing on the shoulders of giants.

Here's the science part.

What we're seeing today in the SSD market is a renaissance in computer architecture - and genuinely new ways of solving performance problems. That follows 30 years of predictable developments which derived more from foreseeable incremental semiconductor process technology improvements (faster, denser chips) than unforeseeable new ways of designing digital systems.

Although it may seem dismissive to say that nothing very new has happened in CPU design in the past 30 years - I'm talking about architectural design. If you take as the starting point Illiac 4 (an experimental multicore processor built in the early 1970s - which taught architects the need for new compiler technology and fast datapaths) you are on the straight line route which takes you to today's multi-core processors on a single chip. Yes - there was a RISCé wobble in CPU thinking in the mid 1980s - with a decade of ripple effects - but once microprocessors and memories were designed with the aid of CAD tools - rather than taped out by hand - most of the truly creative thinking about CPU hardware architecture went into micro rather macro level design concepts.

Today in the SSD market - the way to design an ideal SSD for any particular market is still a process which owes more to human ingenuity and new patents - than to running another pass through a logic compiler.

And that takes us to another view of the SSD market which has clarified in 2008 - the growing importance of Intellectual Property. If you look behind the stories of who has been suing whom in the SSD market or who has been trying to acquire whom - you'll soon reach the conclusion that IP in SSD controller design (and who owns it) is as important today - as knowing which flavor of assembly language was going to dominate the desktop PC market, or workstation market in the early 1980s.

Although memory plays a big part in making up the cost of an SSD - it's the controller IP which determines the personality of the SSD - and the price that customers are prepared to pay. The nightmare scenario for any memory chip maker is the risk of being locked out of the SSD box - and being forced to supply a vastly expanded market for memory chips for SSDs merely as a commodity supplier. Years of developing partner relationships with PC and server oems could become irrelevant - if the SSD market becomes a bigger market for their chips with new rulers.

And going back to the western movie analogy above - another scene is when our hero (the customer) walks into the saloon after a long ride (having seen many wild horses - none of which match the descriptions that the wrangler is looking for).

"Pour me a drink" says our androgynous hero. "No, not the everyday stuff - the good stuff from behind the bar."

That leads to the another question which has arisen this year - and which will receive more attention from vendors and users throughout 2009.

What is the good stuff? - when it comes to SSDs? Can you trust the strength of the juice as stated on the label? I've already indicated that many published SSD specs fluctuate - and many magazine benchmarks for SSDs can't be relied on.

Looking ahead to 2009 - what can we expect? Almost certainly - more vendors entering the market, more products, more SSD jargon/babble - and the start of public acrimony regarding disputed claims over market leadership and competing visions for the way ahead. I predict we'll call 2009 - the "Year of SSD Confusion".

As the SSD industry moves to the next stage in its growth users and oems will, like Indiana Jones, have to learn to tread carefully to avoid pitfalls on their way to SSD's mythical treasures. (Trust me - I've seen the movie.) There's a serious risk of backwards steps and also disaster striking from the beginning to the end of the SSD path.

Is it worth it? I hope so. There will be amazing outcomes for many. But one lesson from zoology is that survival of the individual is not the same as survival of the species. Even if the SSD market does grow to $10 billion annual revenue (as I predicted in 2003) many SSD vendors will fail. Many promising SSD product avenues will turn out to be dead ends too.

As always - StorageSearch.com will be here reporting on what happens and helping you find your way safely to where you'd like to go.
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There are hundreds of articles about SSDs on StorageSearch.com

The top 50 or so most popular SSD articles are summarized and updated here.
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SSD Market Missed Opportunities in 2008?
Lest we get carried away on a wave of optimism and market hype - it's important to remember that there have also been some big missed opportunities in the SSD market - in 2008 too. In the interests of balance I've listed them here.
  • The abysmally bad design integration of flash SSDs in most notebooks - which completely miss the true potential of this technology described in my SSD market model.

    The result has been a wave of yawn inducing products which you would not rush out to buy if your best friend had just bought one. Whether this has been due to a lack of imagination by notebook product marketers and designers - or simply the need to rush out designs which tick the SSD box - I don't know. But I haven't yet seen an SSD notebook I would actually buy myself. Products on offer at the moment are as inviting as a battery operated engine in an offroad 4x4 car.
  • Several years ago - the big hard disk makers paid out to settle class action suits related to misleading claims about capacity. I expect that the flash SSD market will be fertile ground for future performance-related lawsuits from oems and users. I analyzed the issues in Can you trust flash SSD specs & benchmarks?

    From my discussions about this subject - it seems that the root causes lie more in vendor naivety rather than duplicity. But that's little consolation. The industry needs to get its act together.
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SSDs Pass HDDs in Storage Density
2009 may well be remembered as the year that flash SSDs surpassed HDDs in storage capacity in the same form factor.

I'm not talking about itsy bitsy 1 inch and smaller drives here. I'm talking about the hard core 2.5" form factor.

That's the size which once seemed to offer the best hopes for hard disk makers staying in business - in applications like disk to disk backup, entertainment bulk storage etc.

In January 2009 - pureSilicon started sampling a 2.5" MLC SSD - with 1TB capacity in a 9.5mm high form factor.

A few weeks later Western Digital temporarily restored the parity in storage density when it announced a 2TB 3.5" hard drive. Since you can put 2x 2.5" drives into a single 3.5" enclosure - you can think of them as being equivalent. That is until either the next amplification in MLC (if it ever works) or the next shrink in flash memory (maybe later than sooner).

Price of the 2.5" terabyte SSD wasn't mentioned. I expect it will cost a lot. But nowhere near as much as the 1st terabyte SSDs cost - when they appeared in 2002 - at a cool $2 million.

So you may well ask - when will SSDs cost less than HDDs for the same capacity?

In some high-performance grades (15K RPM server drives) - I expect to see that happen this year - in smaller capacities like 100GB. Looking Ahead to the 2009 SSD Market
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PCI Express SSD Searches Overtake 3.5" SSDs
Editor:- February 3, 2009 - StorageSearch.com disclosed that in January pageviews for PCIe SSDs had overtaken 1.8" SSDs, and 3.5" SSDs too, placing them at #2 in search destination popularity behind 2.5" SSDs.
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Notebook SSD Market Overview - still not a pretty sight
Editor:- June 15, 2009 - StorageSearch.com published a new article today called - Overview of the Notebook SSD Market.

There's a simple way to summarize the complex view of the SSD Notebook / Netbook market.

Lots of initial hype and optimism that the market would deliver an astonishingly new product experience to users, followed by dismay and disillusion due to a flurry of poorly conceived, badly designed and ineptly executed products. ...read the article
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Introducing - Fat, Regular, Skinny SSDs
Editor:- July 28, 2009 - StorageSearch.com today published an article - RAM Cache Ratios in flash SSDs - which proposes new terms to describe and differentiate products in the flash SSD market.

It is hoped that the new classification jargon will be useful to users who have to evaluate lots of products, and will be useful to vendors as a shorthand when communicating about different segments within their flash SSD product lines.

Within the 2.5" SSD market - for example - the fastest products confusingly include models in all 3 of the new categories.

The new article explains why it's important to know the underlying RAM cache architecture - even if you're happy with the R/W and IOPS performance. ...read the article
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