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SSD's past phantom demons

3 storage media contenders which threatened flash SSDs in the past decade

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - May 19, 2011
Sometimes the future course of a market is determined as much by what didn't happen as by what did.

The SSD market's rock star cult status today owes much to 3 important rival technology phantoms whose appearance in the flesh was once eagerly anticipated by admiring storage fans.

But true to their vaporish origins and maybe even due to shyness they stayed behind the opera curtains. (Were they ever really there? Some people claimed to have seen them.)

Let's start with hard drives.

Seagate launched the world's 15,000 RPM hard drive in February 2000 - and for years after there was much speculation about who would crank up disk rotation speed to the next level (and thereby speed up random IOPS).

Holy holographic comets!

Another dazzling prospect which distracted our attention at about the same time was the allure of an entirely new market which never happened (despite eye watering quantities of VC money being pumped into it) and that was the optical storage industry - which - at regular intervals - newsflashed that it going to replace hard drives - because its researchers could wiggle a bunch of photons in a space smaller than you could squish a tiny magnet.

And if that wasn't impressive enough they went on to say that the latest photonic drive prototypes had more capacity than hard drives, would be cheaper to make and would be 10x faster too. Who could resist tossing another few hundred million dollars into the ghostwriters pot to fund the next exciting episode of that story? (Sadly the script and the design details were lost. They were backed up on a spare lab version of the photonic drive which proved to be unrecoverable even by the best forensic sleuths in the business. So they cancelled plans for the book, the tv series and the movie.)

And in case you're wondering why the photonic market phantoms didn't back up onto the cloud? - they didn't think it was reliable. Online backup and storage was a flaky market in those days with companies disappearing faster than a magician's rabbit - who incidentally was my source for the tail end of that optical drive story.

Back to the spin from the magnetics.

Things had gone quiet.

In February 2007 I got fed up with waiting for faster hard drives and published an article called - Will there ever be 20,000 RPM HDDs?

By then it was clear to many in the SSD market that zero RPM drives ( alias SSDs) would eventually terminate the market for so called "fast" enterprise hard drives.

The growth of SSDs is a much more complicated story than the simple replacement of one type of storage by another. SSD revenue is a hungry feeder - it prefers eating servers - which have more protein - but when it's hungry it will nibble away at some hard drives for roughage too. Eventually SSDs will eat all the hard drives in the datacenter and become a monster market in its own right.

HDD makers aren't scared by SSD apparitions either

Big hard drive makers don't lose too much sleep about those scary bedtime stories right now because they think the SSD monster is still too small to digest them and besides - unlike a leopard - an HDD company could easily can change its spots should such an SSD exigency occur.

You may be sure that HDD makers have already done a lot of reading up on those spot changing tricks (or are cooking up some of their own) because if you look at recent market projections from SSD analysts and add them together it's clear that flash SSD revenue will overtake HDD revenue by 2015. I think HDDs will limp on for another handful of years in consumer markets and may even be given away free.

When a computer industry supplier segment stops making its product faster - and concentrates on making them cheaper - it doesn't satisfy the same needs. That's why HDD makers have been cultivating new markets in consumer gadgets in the past decade which aren't nearly so demanding for raw performance.

In a few years time - when you look back on the history of the SSD market you'll be surprised that the hard drive market hung on for so long.

But as you're reading about the storage market today - you know that navigating the SSD market safely to this bright solid state future feels more like crawling through a mine-field.

A couple of wrong steps can leave you worse off than your were to start off with.

There's no armor which is going to protect you on this journey where staying at home and doing nothing puts you at serious risk of IOPS starvation.

Your best defense is to read and understand more about this subject. Knowing more is better.

And if anyone tells you the SSD market is easy peasy - "click here to add to your basket and all your problems are solved!" or "we tested 10 SSDs to find which is the best for you!" - trust me they don't know what they're talking about. Only you can decide what's best for you - because no one else knows your needs and priorities.

Postscript comments

The above text was published on the home page of StorageSearch.com as my April 2011 blog.

But when it came to saving it as a permanent article I realised that the subject deserved another strand of discussion to make it historically accurate.

I've continued that flow of thinking in the column on the right hand side of this page.



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image for this article shows Megabyte looking in at the storage demon cavern "Don't be shy" said Megabyte.
"Our readers would love to see you."
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10+ years of "MRAM will soon replace flash"

nv memory alternatives to flash?
The 3rd "no-show" factor in the 2000 to 2013 period was the so-called "flash SSD killer" - a competing type of non volatile memory which might (one day) replace flash. There have been many different technologies in this category - today called "storage class memory". Here's a small selection of nv memory cry-wolf stories that I picked out of the storage history archive. (Latest update in this timeline - October 2013)
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Fusion-io fast SSDs - click for more info
world's fastest production PCIe SSD
from Fusion-io
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MRAM - the new Core Store?
Editor:- June 10, 2003 - IBM and Infineon Technologies today announced they have developed the most advanced Magnetic Random Access Memory (MRAM) technology to date by integrating magnetic memory components into a high-performance logic base.

Today's announcement could accelerate the commercialization of MRAM, a breakthrough memory technology with the potential to begin replacing some of today's memory technologies as early as 2005. MRAM could lead to 'instant on' computers, allowing users to turn computers on and off as quickly as a light switch.
click for larger MRAM image
"MRAM has the potential to become the universal memory technology of the future," said Dr T. C. Chen, VP Science and Technology, IBM Research. "This breakthrough demonstrates that MRAM technology is rapidly maturing and could fundamentally alter the entire memory marketplace within the next few years."

By combining IBM technology with Infineon's expertise in creating very high-density semiconductor memory, the companies believe MRAM products could be commercially available as early as 2005.
...
SAMSUNG Introduces New Nonvolatile Memory - PRAM
Editor:- September 11, 2006 - Samsung announced that it has completed the first working prototype of what is expected to be the main memory device to replace high density NOR flash within the next decade a Phase-change Random Access Memory.
news image PRAM
The company unveiled the 512M-Megabit PRAM device in Seoul today. More scalable than any other memory architecture being researched, PRAM features the fast processing speed of RAM for its operating functions combined with the non-volatile features of flash memory for storage, giving it the nickname "Perfect RAM."

A key advantage in PRAM is its extremely fast performance. Because PRAM can rewrite data without having to first erase data previously accumulated, it is effectively 30 x faster than conventional flash memory. Incredibly durable, PRAM is also expected to have at least 10x the life span of flash memory.

PRAM will be a highly competitive choice over NOR flash, available beginning sometime in 2008. Samsung designed the cell size of its PRAM to be only half the size of NOR flash. Moreover, it requires 20% fewer process steps to produce than those used in the manufacturing of NOR flash memory.

...Later:- - it took Samsunganother 3 years to get the 512Mb PRAM into production.
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IBM Previews Racetrack Solid State Storage
Editor:- April 10, 2008 - IBM researchers have published details about a new type of high density non volatile memory.

Flash Memory and nv ram "Racetrack" memory is so named because the data "races" around the wire "tracks". IBM suggests that in the next 10 years - the new memory could compete with flash at a much lower price per gigabyte. The new technology uses magnetic domain storage but without the high current needed by earlier solid state magnetic devices.

...Later:- if you ever wondered how all those other non volatile RAM-like technologies - which flash into the SSD news pages briefly and then disappear for years - might fit into the future SSD landscape - an IBM/SNIA white paper called - Storage Class Memory - the future of solid state storage (pdf) extrapolates memory chip technology trends upto 2020.
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Unity Semiconductor Unveils Flash's Successor
Editor:- May 19, 2009 - Unity Semiconductor exited stealth mode and stated its aim to have the lowest manufacturing cost per bit in the non volatile memory industry with a new breakthrough technology called CMOx.

The company said it will ship 64Gb devices in volume in 2011. Unity Semiconductor says it will develop and produce NAND flash successor technologies and products that, in time, will extend into high ]performance embedded and enterprise applications.

"It's a Technology for Terabits that will challenge high volume rotating magnetic media" said Unity Semiconductor Chairman, President & CEO Darrell Rinerson a former executive at Micron Technology and at AMD.

The company, also announced today it has closed a Series C funding round for $22 million. This brings to nearly $75M the total funding to date in Unity Semiconductor.
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world's first PCIe PCM SSD
Editor:- June 14, 2011 - NVSL ( the Non-Volatile Systems Lab at UCSD) recently demonstrated a prototype PCIe PCM (phase-change memory) SSD - with R/W speeds upto 1.1GB/s and 327MB/s respectively and 8GB usable capacity.

A spokesperson for the Moneta SSD design team - Professor Steven Swanson said "...Moneta gives us a window into the future of what computer storage systems are going to look like, and gives us the opportunity now to rethink how we design computer systems in response."

Swanson says he hopes to build the 2nd generation of the Moneta storage device in the next 6 to 9 months and says the technology could be ready for market in just a few years as the underlying phase-change memory technology improves.

Editor's comments:- in a white paper Protoype PCM Storage Array (pdf) the team outlines the design and architecture of their PCM SSD prototype and also compares aspects of performance with entry level PCIe flash SSDs from Fusion-io. In a recent article I warned that you should not pay too much heed to comparative PCIe SSD benchmarks - because from different arbitrary selected angles they can "prove" different arbitrary performance rankings. I wouldn't be surprised if some investors take fright that a PCM SSD scored higher than a Fusion-io SSD in some of the published graphs. But for those who understand SSD architecture it doesn't reveal anything new.

In my view this prototype clearly demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of PCM as an SSD technology.

PCM SSD strengths vs flash

The granularity of writes in PCM is smaller and faster - which means that small R/W operations have higher IOPS. If you have apps where that is important you can simply buy SSDs with various ratios of integrated RAM cache. That would give you small block IOPS better than PCM - end of story. PCM has higher endurance than SLC - which means that the SSD controller overhead applied to endurance can be lighter than in most flash systems. Hence potentially faster latency through to the media.

PCM SSD weaknesses vs flash

The prototype PCIe SSD card provides capacity which is similar to RAM SSD density - but with a large block R/W throughput which is much lower than flash arrays. This implementation used 16MB PCM chips.

Flash allows higher capacity writes to a single chip - and this gives better peak performance results than PCM when exploited in parallel architecture arrays. You can't get those flash peak performance numbers from a PCM array in the same board footrpint - because many PCM chips have to be written to concurrently to achieve the same capacity R/W as a single flash chip. That means with today's technologies - flash SSDs have a higher proportion of ready to write memory chips in the same chip count population as PCM SSDs.

For more about alternative SSD technologies - see SSD's past phantoms.
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"PCM is a bigger threat to supercaps than it is to flash..."
...Editor talking to various strategists and investors in June 2011 in response to comments about a news story by IBM that its researchers had proven the viability of multi-bit storage.

In the past decade PCM had lost several previous geometry generations of economic viability because flash capacity roadmaps had gotten several boosts from MLC and then x3 - each time raising the bar for PCM.

translation:- phase memory may replace power holdup components and DRAM caches in some flash SSDs. But the idea that pcm will significantly replace flash in SSDs in the next year or so is ridiculous.

IBM and other non volatile memory makers have been over hyping their technologies and saying that they will kill or replace flash soon - for the past 8 years. And I can remember similar claims from other nv RAM researchers going back to the 1970s (before flash).
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"You read a lot on web pages like this about SSDs one day replacing hard drives. Hard drives have been around for 56 years - but nothing is sacred when it comes to technology wars and for various reasons flash SSDs might be lucky to reach their mid 20s."
...from - storage news archive - February 6, 2012 - Rambus aims at replacement for flash SSDs
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"10 years ago, Intel declared that flash memory would stop scaling at 65nm, prompting the need for a new replacement technology. Thinking the end was near for flash, a number of companies began to develop various next-generation memory types, such as 3D chips, FeRAM, MRAM, phase-change memory (PCM), and ReRAM. Many of these technologies were originally billed as universal memories.
Universal Memories Fall Back to Earth, by Mark LaPedus, Senior editor - SemiMD (September 20, 2012)
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"The memristor concept is like an air castle. It looks like something but actually nothing. It seems like a new thing, but finally you found it still talked about the same thing. If you say it stands for nothing, they will tell you that it comprises everything."
An insightful reader comment to ReRAM Is Memory Focus at IEDM (EETimes) (October 2013)

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