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Imprinting the brain of the SSD

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - August 2010

how did the market go

from - Who cares?

to - You care!

about the identity of SSD controllers?
.....
Imprinting the brain of the SSD

SSD controllers define the personality of an SSD.

Before 2007 - it was rare for SSD makers to say much about what their internal controllers did - or how they did it.

After 2007 - which I called "the Year of SSD Revolutions" - the critical role of the once shadowy SSD controller became clearer to a wider market in these important respects:-
  • some flash SSDs were an order of magnitude faster and more reliable than others
  • customers cared about the differences and were prepared to pay to get them
  • the center of gravity in SSD market pricing had moved away from the memory components and towards the controller
The functions performed by a flash SSD controller are the most complex operations performed by any hardware in the computer market.


what do I think about SandForce's SSD controller branding program?

I was the editor of the leading publication in the SSD market - during this period - and from that perspective SandForce's achievement of getting their company so well known, and so quickly in competition with nearly 200 other SSD technology companies - looked very impressive!

I had seen transient spikes in popularity before and I didn't think it would last for more than a few quarters - but I was wrong.

In the October 2009 edition of the Top 10 SSD companies list - I offered an interpretation of SandForce's continuing ability to capture the interest of so many people in the SSD market with this observation.

"SandForce's dual frenemmy nature may be a factor in the high interest levels in this company. Even if you're not planning to use their products - you can't afford to ignore them - because their technology may pop up in another place close to your own interests."

Leveraging this PR based visibility with a branding program was an obvious and long anticipated next step. Before discussing that in more detail let's look at earlier chip branding models from history.

comparisons with other models of microprocessor branding

Intel Inside

There are much fewer examples of chip co-branding programs in computer history than you might expect - if your background is from other markets. That's because the nature of this market is B2B rather than B2C - and there are many complicated technical ecosystem considerations as well as strategic ones which are associated with this kind of chip selection decision - which are outside the comprehension of FMCG marketers.

Exceptionally - one of the world's best known brands did come from a chip company and the Intel Inside program. A key features of this advertising driven program was that computer makers were offered incentives in the form of discounts on the products they bought if they promoted the fact they were using Intel's x86 processors inside their computers (as opposed to x86 chips from other companies which either had licensed the architecture - or had reverse engineered it - or in some cases simply copied it).

SPARC compliant

Another example (which is less well known outside enterprise computing circles) was the SPARC program set up by Sun Microsystems in 1989 (which ran succesfuly till about 1997 - after which its use declined as Sun de-emphasized the SPARC brand).

To manage the SPARC branding program Sun set up a hands-off (but strongly dependent) branding ORG - called SPARC International - which certified products for technical compatibility and policed the naming and licensing of sub-brands. A handful of chipmakers did in fact develop competing SPARC chips - and about 200 member manufacturers helped to create a SPARC systems market with an annual revenue peaking over $20 billion in 2000. The business side of that worked in the following way. Members paid annual fees - to display the SPARC compatible logo (the amount was related to the voting strength of the company). In addition companies paid one-off fees to create and license their own sub brands - such as TurboSPARC for example.

how is SandForce Driven SSDs different to earlier business models for microprocessor ?

In preparing this article - I contacted Kent Smith Senior Director, Product Marketing at SandForce to ask if companies who use their logo are offered any monetary incentives to participate in the program.

He said "At this time there is no financial connection with participation in the program."

So that's one important difference to the Intel Inside scheme. Other important differences are:-
  • You don't have to buy a controller from SandForce to make an SSD. But you did have to use an x86 architecture processor to make an IBM / Microsoft compatible PC - when Intel started their program.

    Over 50 companies currently design flash SSD controllers - of which about half offer their controllers to 3rd parties. Although the number of SSD oems is currently under 200 - the big picture is that this will grow to over 1,000 companies in a few years - creating a huge market for successful controller IP suppliers. It's reasonable to anticipate that the proportion of SSD oems who buy in their SSD controller IP will transition to be the majority - instead of the minority (as it was in 2005).
  • SandForce's early market recognition occurred despite zero advertising spend - whereas Intel's branding program became a double digit percentage of the company's overall business costs.

    As an SSD market analyst - I don't think that zero ad spend is sustainably viable for any SSD company in such a competitive market.

    As a publisher I naturally hope - that if there is any advertising money behind this - I'd like to get some. It's interesting to note that some actual advertisers of mine who I know used SandForce chips - didn't mention that connection in the original versions of their ads.
  • Some SSD oems think they will lose credibility with their customers if they admit they use IP from elsewhere. That includes Seagate whose 1st SSD product did include a SandForce controller - which they didn't want to talk about - presumably because it was a tactical step to get into the SSD market - whereas the strategic aspiration is to design its own in collaboration with Samsung.

    In contrast - I cannot imagine that any computer manufacturer would ever have thought they would lose credibility by admitting that their x86 compatible computers used Intel chips.

    ...Later:- October 2010 - as Seagate has done many times before on the subject of SSDs - the company changed its mind and allowed itself to be listed in SandForce's list of oems who use its technology - but without being part of the marketing program.
  • Some SSD oems think that their SSDs will be devalued and appear "me-too" if they talk too much about the SSD controller inside. That's because although many complicated factors go into the SSD price mix it's fair to assume that the general level of SSD education in the market is too low to recognize the important specification subtleties signaled by SSD jargon.
Future of SandForce's branding program?

In technical markets like SSDs - branding cannot be treated in isolation to technology.

But if you already have great technology - then great marketing can get your product into more customer short lists - and it can increase the profitability of your technology assets.

SandForce's standing in the SSD Top 10 lists in the past 5 quarters shows that the market is very receptive to new ideas and products emerging from this company.

As the SSD market bubbles on - more SSD companies will have to turn to marketing. But SandForce will always be remembered as the 1st SSD controller company that most users could name.

See also:- SandForce - editor mentions on StorageSearch.com

For real-time SSD market developments - see SSD news.


author's footnotes:-

SandForce didn't sponsor or suggest I write this article. And at the time of publishing it SandForce was not an advertiser on StorageSearch.com. (Although later that changed.)

In 2011 and 2012 a new market factor emerged in the SSD market- as investors and would-be acquirers of SSD companies - realized that a convenient way to value SSD companies was on the uniqueness and strength of their SSD controller IP.

Since then - I've had countless conversations about this subject with significant market stakeholders and my valuation of SandForce (published on this site several quarters before they were acquired by LSI) proved to be very accurate.

From whichever angle you look at SSDs in today's market - user, designer, oem, distributor, investor or software developer - the importance of the SSD controller - its strengths, weaknesses and general credibility are now firmly established as one of the best places to start the shortlisting process. (The other - still being the company's ranking in the Top SSD Companies List.)

For related articles see:-

SSD articles
VCs in SSDs
Marketing Views
the Top 20 SSD companies
enterprise SSD market silos
key symmetries in SSD design
Branding Strategies in the SSD Market
Bottlenecks in the pure SSD datacenter will be much more serious
.....

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SandForce awareness timeline
from stealth mode to "SandForce Driven SSDs"

In the 1st quarter of 2009 as the number of merchant SSD controller companies reached double digits and StorageSearch.com prepared to publish a directory of SSD controllers and IP - a new company still in stealth mode - called SandForce - was about to launch a new controller design that would shift the performance boundaries for a 2.5" flash SSD into the territory previously occupied by entry level rackmount RAM SSDs.

Before SandForce - it was rare for SSD controller companies to be known or recognized outside a very small technical community. But within a few months - the new company became one of the best known SSD brands in the SSD industry.

March 2009 - SandForce - in stealth mode - supplied embargoed content to editors and set up briefings.

April 2009 - SandForce unveiled its SF-1000 family of SSD Processors - aimed at oems building SATA flash SSDs.

July 2009 - SandForce made its 1st appearance in the quarterly Top 10 SSD companies list - going straight in at #2. This was the 1st time that the list included a company whose primary business was designing SSD controllers.

November 2009 - StorageSearch.com commented on the growing number of SSD oems who were known to be using SandForce controllers - and started using the term "SandForce inside" SSDs.
May 2010 - SandForce officially announced a branding program called - SandForce Driven SSDs. It uses the logo shown on the right. .......... SandForce driven logo - click to learn more
August 2010 - at the time of publishing this article - 15 companies were listed on SandForce's co-branding web page. But I doubt whether all companies who use these controllers will want to be part of this program - for reasons discussed later in this article.
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sugaring nand flash for the enterprise
When flash SSDs started to be used as enterprise server accelerators in 2004 - competing RAM SSD makers said flash wasn't reliable enough.

Since then flash has dominated the installed base of enterprise SSD starting with SLC, followed by MLC, then a correction to eMLC and now some SSD makers are saying TLC (x3) may be good enough.

But it's not just the raw memory type which determines the suitability of which flash can work reliably in what type of enterprise SSD. The controller IP and cache architecture can make a difference to the endurance of x5, x10, x20 - and I've even heard claims of x100...

That means TLC (aka x3) - with the right SSD IP - may be as good as SLC in some types of applications. And it costs a lot less and has higher capacity.

What do you need to know?

Who are you going to believe?
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