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Clarifying SSD Pricing - where does all the money go?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - StorageSearch.com

Want to buy some terabytes (or petabytes) of SSD storage?

One confusing factor for buyers and specifiers is that market prices for SSDs have varied more than 100x to 1 for the same capacity and at the same time! With hundreds of oems active in the SSD market and thousands of product news announcements - how can you decide which SSD prices relate to your own needs? And which don't? This article will bring a sense of clarity and order into what can seem like a crazy market.

See also:- Efficiency - making the same or better SSD - with less flash

sugaring flash for the enterprise / consumer SSD guides
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the irritating thing about $$D pricing!

SSDs are among the most expensive items of computer hardware many of you will ever buy - with high end models costing more than high end servers. There's nothing more annoying than spending a large sum of money on something only to find that someone else you know has just bought the same thing at a fraction of the price you paid.

Buyers in the SSD market - who are already confused and irritated enough by the technology aspects in the SSD shortlisting process - are liable to be stunned by a new level of random numbers when they look into the issue of pricing.

Why is a terabyte SSD from one company 2x, 5x, 10x or even more than 100x more expensive than another? (And the companies selling those outrageously costly SSDs keep reporting great business results - so someone must be buying them - even though other products are much cheaper.) The simple explanation is - that all SSDs are not the same. And SSDs can do more than storage. That's why just looking at "capacity" like you would for a hard drive - does not give you a true picture of what the product can do - or what it might cost.

a transport analogy for SSD price vs capacity

Outside the SSD market we're already comfortable with holding seemingly contradictory cost information in our heads - without getting a headache. Because we know the invisible factors which lie behind apparently identical purchase decisions.

Let's suppose you need to travel 400 miles for a meeting. Your options are:-

  • walk
  • bike
  • car
  • train
  • canoe, yacht, raft, speedboat, or river ferry (start and end destinations have ports on the same river)
  • airline (1st class, business class, regular human)
  • helicopter
  • Airforce One

For the sake of this illustration - the critical distance you're going to travel is identical. It's 400 miles. But the cost will vary considerably depending which way you go. And although you may look at more than one alternative for how to get there - depending what the meeting is about and your personal resources and preferences - it's unlikely you will get confused. When it comes to the SSD market - "distance" is like "capacity".

In the travel world - our decision making is simplified by the fact we filter out a lot of irrelevant choices - which we know from our own experience are not valid choices.

None of you reading this - are the President of the USA - so you can instantly filter out the Airforce One option. It probably never crossed your mind before reading this article.

When you've learned more about the part of the SSD market -which relates to your needs - you'll easily be able to filter out confusing price messages. Higher? Or lower? Who cares? If they're irrelevant you can safely ignore them.

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Factors which influence SSD Prices

The main factors which influence SSD pricing are listed in the table below. I've placed them in order of importance - with the most significant at the top of the list.

Factors which most influence SSD Prices © 2010 StorageSearch.com
Speed "Speed" is a catch-all term which includes latency, random IOPS and throughput.

Nearly all these factors can be artificially boosted to look good in benchmarks - and the numbers don't always translate to application performance due to halo effects. Despite the smoke and mirrors, however, experienced users (and this editor) know the fastest SSDs when they see them.

In the right circumstances server users will buy the fastest SSDs to achieve application acceleration which is not technically possible without SSDs, or which costs far more - using additional servers and hard disks.

For the same SSD storage capacity - street prices for the fastest SSDs can be more than 200x more than for entry level SSD products.

Before 2007 - the "Year of SSD Revolutions" the predominant part of an SSD's cost was the memory type and memory capacity. After that the SSD controller too became a significant part of the product price mix. That was the year it became clear that even within the constraints of using the same interface, and memory type some designers in the highly competitive 2.5" and 3.5" SSD markets could use clever architecture and knowledge of device characteristics to leverage significantly more performance out of those memory chips. The result was to make their products more attractive to users - and gave them the ability to charge a higher price.

Those factors - related to SSD IP - had always been true in the rackmount SSD market too - but it was in 2007 that it became easier to make like for like comparisons.
Memory Here's a simple rule of thumb based on analyzing published price data - for identical storage capacity - across a wide range of commercially available SSDs.
  • RAM SSDs cost 9x more than SLC flash SSDs
  • SLC flash SSDs cost 2x to 6x more than classic MLC flash SSDs (2 bits per cell MLC)
Here are some additional price complicating factors...
  • within fast flash SSDs - the amount of over-provisioning could mean you've actually got twice as much memory inside the SSD (or half as much) as you thought.
  • new types of nv memory such as PRAM, MRAM and RRAM etc have appeared in some SSDs - but mostly in roles as cache within the SSD - such as Skyera's rackmounts - rather than as bulk storage (except in experimental devices).
Historically the market ratios between these various SSD memory types has fluctuated a lot due to demand vs supply, timing of new geometry shrinks, etc. You can get an idea of the crazy degree of change and direction by seeing the graph in this classic RAM vs flash SSD pricing article.
Efficiency Some SSDs use nearly twice as much flash - and also use more expensive related chips such as CPUs to implement SSDs which are functionally identical to best of breed competitors.

These differences arise from design architecture, controller IP and software. The growth of this trend was commented on in the article - strategic transitions in the SSD market.
Reliability Some SSDs have average operational lives which can be 2x, 5x, 10x or even 100x longer than entry level consumer grade SSDs - when they are used in demanding applications.

Reliability options within the SSD market - include internal hardened data integrity, enhanced fault tolerance or enhanced endurance.
Interface / Form factor Some interfaces and form factors are supported by more vendors than others.

That means prices may be lower for SSDs having otherwise similar speed and memory types.

For a complete list of SSD directories organized by interface type and form factor see the SSD Buyers Guide.
Security & ruggedness There are some other features which can be important in some SSD applications - but which are not present in all SSDs. Where they are needed - they can impact system cost (for any given capacity) by anything from 30% to over 300% compared to other devices with a similar speed.
Ease of installation For server apps - in particular - buying the SSD is just part of the process.

Getting it to work effectively is another hurdle to cross. I've examined these issues in a separate article - SSD ASAPs (Auto-tuning SSD Accelerated Pools of storage). This discusses the situations in which it's worth paying more for an SSD ASAP - and those others where it's not - and where human tuning is more likely to give better performance results at a lower price.
Conclusion

SSD pricing looks complicated - because it is complicated!

It would be misleading to claim otherwise. There is no such thing as a "single SSD market". Just as in the transportation analogy used in this article - there is no such thing as a single way of getting from point "A" to "B". But you can takes steps to simplify your own SSD price search. A helpful tactic is to decide which pricing messages to filter in or out - depending on which features within the SSD cost model are relevant to your own needs.
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...Later:- SNIA has set up a resource page to help users assess the cost of ownership factors for flash SSDs.

It includes a spreadsheet which was developed by Intel and a supporting whitepaper - SSD TCO - An In-Depth Analysis of Many Important Factors (pdf) - written by Esther Spanjer and Dan Le at SMART Modular Technologies.
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...Later:- for professional buyers and marketers there are lots of market analysts who provide guidance on the market price of SSDs.

In the consumer market a particular specialist in real-time price tracking appears to be PriceG2.
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articles which look at the macro costs of storage

The Real Cost of Storage - this wide ranging article by Joerg Hallbauer (published, April 2009, in GestaltIT ) looks at the lifetime cost of storage in the enterprise.

Settling the SSD 'High-Cost' Debate - by Amyl Ahola (published June 2009) compares SSD and HDD array solutions. The principles aren't new - but the article brings these comparisons up to date.

SSDs and the TPC-C top 10 - by Robin Harris - "The most expensive top-10 SSD result is some 15% cheaper than the least expensive disk-based result and the other SSD results are much less."

The Cost of Owning and Storing Data - by Gene Nagle (published April 1999 in StorageSearch.com) was one of the earliest articles which examined this important subject in a consistent way.

Looking into the far distant future - Reaching for the petabyte SSD - by Zsolt Kerekes (published March 2010 in StorageSearch.com) proposes that the way we think about storage will change - from being a cost overhead (today) to being a profit center. More (storage) will be better - if enterprises can leverage their data (and automatically grow new data) with upcoming SSD and search-engine enabled software technologies.
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SSD ad - click for more info
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how fast can your SSD run backwards?
SSDs are complex devices and there's a lot of mysterious behavior which isn't fully revealed by benchmarks and vendor's product datasheets and whitepapers. Underlying all the important aspects of SSD behavior are asymmetries which arise from the intrinsic technologies and architecture inside the SSD.

Which symmetries are most important in an SSD?

That depends on your application. But knowing that these symmetries exist, what they are, and judging how your selected SSD compares will give you new insights into SSD performance, cost and reliability.

There's no such thing as - the perfect SSD - existing in the market today - but the SSD symmetry list helps you to understand where any SSD in any memory technology stands relative to the ideal.
SSD symmetries article And it explains why deviations from the ideal can matter. ...click to read the article
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What's the best way to design a flash SSD?
and other questions which divide SSD opinion

More than 10 key areas of fundamental disagreement within the SSD industry are discussed in an article here on StorageSearch.com called the the SSD Heresies.
click to read the article - the SSD Heresies ... Why can't SSD's true believers agree upon a single coherent vision for the future of solid state storage? ...read the article
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Clarifying SSD Prices - article on StorageSearch.com . Simply counting the calories
can be a mistake.
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SSD ad - click for more info
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2014 will be seen as the start of a new phase of creativity in the enterprise SSD market on the subject of pricing and affordability
Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing
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SSD ad - click for more info
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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 use SSDs."
Start of the enterprise SSD goldrush
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Many SSD marketers I talk to nowadays regard the price per gigabyte of their latest product almost as a badge of honor. But it wasn't always like that. SSD pricing used to be a taboo subject.
Breaking Taboos on SSD pricing
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See how much flash SSD prices have changed!
2001 - a rugged 14GB 3.5" SLC SSD from Adtron cost $42,000.

2003 - a 21GB 2.5" PATA SLC SSD from M-Systems cost "less than $11,000".

2005 - a 10GB 3.5" SCSI SLC SSD from BiTMICRO - oem price was $2,999.

2006 (Jan) - a 24GB PATA SLC SSD from Adtron (commercial temp) cost $5,710.

2006 (Dec) - Advanced Media launched a 32GB 2.5" SATA MLC SSD for $1,000.

2008 - a fast 32GB 2.5" SATA SLC SSD from Mtron cost about $399.

2010 - OCZ said it was shipping a 32GB 2.5" MLC SSD for under $100.

2011 (March) - Intel said its SSD 320 40GB MLC cost $89 in 1,000 unit quantities.

September 2011 - the price per terabyte in tier 1 storage arrays is nearly the same for eMLC SSDs and hard drives - according to an article by Jamon Bowen at Texas Memory Systems.

October 2011 - Tier 1 FC SAN SSD list prices are about $20K / $30K per usable terabyte for MLC / SLC respectively (sources Huawei Symantec and Violin Memory).

November 2011 - Coraid said its EtherFlash solution (NAS SSD) costs under $10K / TB.

June 2012 - an article in Tech Report reported the price per GB of consumer SSDs as being mostly between $1 and $2 across a range of popular models.

August 2012 - Skyera set a new low price record for fast enterprise racknmount SSD storage with its Skyhawk which provides 44TB usable capacity for $131,000 approx - less than $3K / TB. The new pricing was enabled by adaptive R/W DSP flash technology and big SSD controller architecture.

September 2012 - KingSpec said the MSRP for its 1TB fast PCIe SSD - MultiCore model - which has 8x SandForce controllers on board - and which started shipping in July 2012 - is under $2,900.

October 2012 - The cost per GB of consumer SATA SSDs (64GB to 256GB) has approximately halved in the past year to under $0.50/GB according to an article on dealnews.com.

January 2013 - Micron announced it will ship SATA SSDs with just undet a terabyte capacity priced at under $600 in this quarter.

April 2013 - Astute Networks said its new fast-enough 2U iSCSI SSD array can deliver virtualized deduped storage capacity at $2,000 / TB.
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Cactus looks at the thorny issue of embedded flash TCO
Editor:- April 2, 2014 - Cactus Technologies today published a blog - Solid State Storage Total Cost of Ownership versus a Really Low Price Today - aimed at designers in industrial markets - which discusses 4 sources of cost they should consider when selecting an SSD.

When looking at eol considerations - the author Steve Larrivee - warns that although designers may be counting on being able to delay requalifications by mining obsolete SSDs as unsold inventory from channels and brokers "for a considerably higher price... this introduces the possibility of counterfeit parts as well."...read the article
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$/TBW (cost per Terabyte Write) was proposed in a blog by SanDisk.

There are many other misleading metrics like this in the SSD cost evaluation literature. And you'd be surprised how many of them originate from leading SSD companies.
cost per Terabyte Write?
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Spot market prices
for - 2.5" SATA SSDs
from - ChinaFlashMarket.com

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See how much RAM SSD prices have changed!

2003 - a 1TB FC RAM SSD from TMS (2 million IOPS) cost $1.6 million.

2003 - a 4GB PCI SSD - from Cenatek - (35,000 IOPS) cost $3,599.

2008 - a 128GB SAS RAM SSD from Solid Access (70,000 IOPS) cost $75,000.

A 512GB FC RAM SSD from Texas Memory Systems (600,000 random IOPS) cost $290,000.

2009 - a 4GB PCIe RAM SSD from DDRdrive cost $1,495.

2011 - a 500GB FC RAM SSD from Kaminario (150,000 IOPS) cost $50,000.

See also:- flash SSDs in the enterprise - 2004 to 2013
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One consequence of this architectural decison is - less hardware in the SSD card - therefore much better intrinsic MTBF and potentially the lowest cost to build product
what's so very different about the design of Fusion-io's ioDrives / PCIe SSDs?
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IOPS / $ as a value of SSD goodness is bad
Editor:- December 5, 2012 - The cost of SSDs is one of the arguments most often cited by antis to explain why (in their view) the transition to a pure SSD storage market can't happen.

I guess the designers of the first ships made from iron (which unlike wood doesn't float) and the first airplanes (which were heavier than air) must've got used to hearing similar objections.

In the past 10 years in various articles I've described what I thought were the real user value propositions for SSD adoption in different markets. And I've got so used to filtering out the inappropriate arguments about the cost per gigabyte of SSDs which come from the SSD antis that they don't bother me any more.

But the broad sweep of principles which govern SSD adoption in the enterprise still leave much room for misleading analysis - and even when the analysis comes from SSD vendors - then it's just as important in my view to show that it's wrong.

So be wary of arguments for enterprise SSD adoption which cite IOPS per dollar (or the other way round) as a justification for filling a gap in some cleverly drawn curve. I've seen this recently from leading SSD companies who should know better.

As human beings we feel comforted when we think we see new patterns. But they don't always reflect reality. SSDs fitting gaps in IOPS vs dollars charts isn't a sufficiently good reason to buy SSDs. Just as buying stocks based on past performance charts isn't a good idea either. The future isn't a tidied up remake of the past.

If you think about it for more than a microsecond you'll see that the IOPS per dollar argument - which sounds plausibly eco-technical when you first see it written down - doesn't lead to any safe conclusions at all.

the zero cost but slow SSD fails this test

Apply some boundary analysis to the situation and imagine an SSD which costs zero dollars. According to the IOPS/$ advocates - this is your perfect enterprise solution and at this cost it should even replace hard drives. But if the IOPS of the SSD is considerably less than that of the hard drive - you'd be nuts to use it - because you wouldn't get useful work done on your apps. (The model has broken down in this direction.)

ultrafast SSDs with low capacity fail this test too

At the other end of the scale - it's easy to picture ultrafast SSDs which could score very well on the IOPS / $ scale - but whose capacity or electrical power consumption or or physical size or reliability doesn't make them scalable or attractive solutions.

I said recently on these pages that if you're going to try and come up with a single, plausible-sounding eco-technical marketing-jargon metric for SSD adoption in virtual server environments - then a better suggestion is "cost per happy virtual user". That's the total system cost BTW (TCO) - which includes all the servers and software licenses and service costs etc etc.

IOPS per dollar is a useless metric

Once you start looking at complex real-world systems - which run more than a single type of app - you'll see that the only way in which users can optimize their total economics is by mixing and matching different speeds of SSDs in what I call different silos in their apps server architecture.

Even if you haven't read that read that article it's easy to grasp why I say you can only get the truly lowest system cost by using different types of SSD with different speeds, different capacities and different operating characteristics (and certainly different $/IOPS) - within ratios which make sense for that type of app mix and user load.

$/IOPS is an illusion which doesn't take you anywhere far.

Now - everything above - up to this point here - is something I've already said or implied before - so what can I leave you with on the SSD news page today which is new?

Well here's something I've been thinking about.

Faster SSDs may reduce the amount of SSD capacity you need in a well designed VM environment - compared to using slower SSDs - for the same number of users. The reason is that while there is some overhead in capacity which you can't avoid - on a per user basis - such as their unique data - there's also a lot of transient system storage capacity which gets allocated and deallocated dynamically to get their work done.

As we know in the hard drive VM world - at the threshold of usable performance you need more capacity (really - more drives) simply to get enough IOPS performance. The HDD experience is the best sales person for introducing SSDs.

But when you're comparing different types of SSDs in a VM situation - then the software makes a big difference too. If an SSD from vendor X is twice as fast as that from vendor Y - it means that SSD-X frees up some of its capacity faster than SSD-Y and can therefore handle more users for the same purchased capacity within the same elapsed time.

How big is that percentage difference?

I'm sure we'll see more competing claims coming out from the SSD software industry in the months ahead.
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"SSDs are dollars per gigabyte and pennies per IOPS
HDDs are pennies per gigabyte and dollars per IOPS."
...from:- SSD Primer - Cost Metrics - by Demartek
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Looking for competitive alternative manufacturers?

The directories below list ALL oems who make SSDs in that category.
form factor 1.0" SSDs 1.8" SSDs 2.5" SSDs 3.5" SSDs rackmount
interface FC SSDs PATA SSDs PCIe SSDs SAS SSDs SATA SSDs
memory all SSDs flash SSDs hybrid drives notebook SSDs RAM SSDs
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What's the best / cheapest - PC SSD?
Editor:- I often get emails from readers which ask the above question.

An article on StorageSearch.com - called What's the best / cheapest PC SSD? - is my attempt to create a simple FAQs page - which answers the question...
click to read this article ...of why I can't answer your question - and follows on to pose some probing questions which you can ask yourself. ...read the article
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"Suddenly spinning rust doesn't look so cheap after all, does it?"

...Dave Wright, Founder & CEO SolidFire in his May 2011 blog - Just How Expensive is Flash?
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