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strategic bifurcations in SSD market history

4 ways to split SSD history into "before and after" to understand now

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - October 29, 2018
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When I published the first version of my popular article Charting the Rise of the SSD Market in October 2004 it wasn't the long rambling messily formatted historical narrative which you see today.

In 2004 I and my readers in the SSD market had already lit the fuse for the market explosion which I predicted would inevitably follow - based on a market adoption and "why buy SSDs" user value propositions which were completely different to anything which the industry had thought about before.

I was too busy then changing all my plans to reduce my editorial coverage of all other storage subjects to focus all my energies on the SSD market. I was more interested in the future than the past. And I wondered if I'd be able to keep up with tracking market and making a difference to it.
So in 2006 when when I was looking ahead at my predictions about the growing number of SSD companies which no one had heard of (and which would need a new series called the Top SSD Companies) I realized that SSDs was a market without a reliably written history.

How would newcomers understand it? And we needed those newcomers to make the market work. And they as early adopters were already facing a big barrier of challenging intertwined technical issues in processors, memory, storage and software which was did not have any clear centralized ownership.

Due to my past experience with another growing market before that - SPARC systems - the quickest way to write the first draft of history is to repurpose news stories you've already written into a simple timeline. So in October 2006 my charting the rise of the SSD market article was repurposed to look a bit like the history article today. You can see that version here.

And after that quick and dirty first version of SSD market history (based on what I had experienced first hand) I continued to be busy writing about current and forward looking stuff. So my history article just became a dumping ground for adding more stories each year.

It also became a fertile source from which other publications extracted timelines and sometimes entire clumps of text. Irritating for me that so few acknowledged what their source was - but hey that's the internet.

interpeting SSD history on a rolling basis

Something which every market analyst and editor does at many times in their working lives (if they're any good is to try and interpret for their readers how news stories relate to the emerging market context. That's how we get all those end of year "looking back" and predictive "looking foward" articles which seasonally become increasingly common as December draws nearer.

I was doing exactly the same kind of thing and in some years I would confidently assert "this will be or has been the year of such and such important emerging trend".

So I added those into my history article too.

And because I care about authenticity (and because I was simply short of time) I just cut and pasted those present tense analyses into the growing narrative - whether they were right or wrong - was another matter.

Which is how we get to this point here.

As I'm retiring from such active involvement in the SSD market in 2019 (which may already have happened by the time you read this) I was looking back at SSD history and asking myself - is there a story which I can wrap around the past 40 years of rambling anecdotes and an interpretation which might help a modern reader to appreciate what happened - without having to know all the details?

That was my eureka moment - when I realized - I've been doing the same kind of thing to explain SSD controller architectures, and memory caching ratios and design symmetries etc for many years. And technology experts who know far more than me about what goes on inside semiconductors and systems have told me they found my simple splits of architecture into different sets have been handy ways of thinking about stuff.

So how to split SSD history?

Here are my 4 proposed strategic splits.

split 1

before and after the Modern Era of SSDs

Before the Modern Era - the enterprise SSD market wasn't a sticky market.

After the Modern Era - it was.

And the only thing likely to replace an enterprise SSD was another SSD or memory system.

In my article celebrating the first decade of the Modern Era of SSDs I placed the tipping point at around 2003.

Before the Modern Era - even if an end user had deployed SSD accelerators to fix performance problems in one key application the balance of probability was that for future applications the users would turn back again to legacy solutions such as faster clocked servers and storage. But those legacy options stopped getting faster in a series of steps:-
  • server processor makers had begun telling me in 2000 that future clock speeds couldn't keep growing in the same kind of way which had been an associated assumption of semiconductor design shrinks and Moore's Law since the start of the microprocessor era.

    For processors this aspect of Moore's Law (incrementally faster clock speeds) broke in 2000 to 2003.

    I wrote about this problem in a spoof article April 1, 2002 - HotServer Technologies Announces the 3GHz hotSPARC 9000 and more strogly later - Why Sun Should Acquire an SSD Company (May 2004) in the SPARC Product Directory.

    I didn't realize in 2000 that clock speeds would stay at the same kind of speed limits for the next 20 years.

    But the good thing about the failure of these legacy markets to deliver ever faster solutions was it forced more people to look at SSDs - despite the steep initial learning curves involved.

split 2

before and after Fusion-io

In September 2007 - Fusion-io launched the ioDrive - a PCIe form factor flash SSD with upto 640GB capacity and 100K IOPS performance.

That event created the PCIe SSD market which soon after became a key focal point for innovations in enterprise SSD architecture and SSD systems software due to the combined efforts of the many competitors which entered that market.

There are many strands of SSD market history associated with Fusion-io. In this article about strategic bifurcations I'm just going to mention 2 of them.

SSDs became must-have options in server product lines

Before 2009 - when Fusion-io began announcing a series of design wins for its ioDrives in enterprise servers made by HP, IBM and Dell - big server manufacturers didn't offer SSD accelerators as standard options in their product ranges.

After these initial design wins - it became imperative for all server manufacturers to offer an SSD solution embedded in future products if they wanted them to look competitive. (This tipping point - if one does it they'll all have to do it - was predicted in my 2003 article - could enterprise SSDs become a $10 Billion Market?)

the strategic importance of SSD software

Before Fusion-io there wasn't an SSD software ecosystem. And the lack of automatic software tools for integrating SSDs into caching and other acceleration roles meant that deploying SSDs as accelerators required expensive and skilled manual hot spot tuning.

One of the spin offs from the standardization of SSD integration in servers was that it inspired a wave of SSD software startups which had never been viable before.

Most of the early SSD software pioneers were acquired by SSD manufacturers as the market learned that having compatible software for virtualization and caching made it much easier to sell their SSDs.

Although it's hard to believe it now - this was still a time when there was a vacuum in the space where the SSD software brain might have been expected to be in the vision of legacy giants in the enterprise software, processor chip and array storage markets - who were all taken completely by surprise by this new industry.

split 3

before and after Diablo Technologies' Memory1

Diablo Technologies was a pioneer in shipping SSDs and DRAM emulation products which consisted of flash memory and controller IP integrated in a DRAM compatible DDR3 or DDR4 bus slot.

Although Diablo's products failed to achieve any significant market traction and the company was involved in a series of patent disputes and went bankrupt - there were important market lessons to be learned from the outcome of what I called in August 2015 the first salvo of SCM (Storage Class Memory) DIMM Wars.

Before Diablo's Memory1 (announcement, shipping and customer benchmarks) there had been a genuine belief in the SSD industry that new types of non volatile memory memory products shipped in DRAM compatible bus slots would plausibly launch the next wave of performance improvements in the server market - in a similar way that the PCIe SSDs had done earlier - and that somehow - the latency differences of these 2 types of busses and the ability to place more emulated memory in server motherboards would make an order of magnitude difference and help to create substantial new markets.

The immediate effect of the Memory1 announcement was to set off a spate of competitor announcements about NVDIMM based products aiming at the same idea but based on a variety of design approaches and memory technologies (not just flash).

After the market failure of Memory1 my analysis of the SCM DIMM wars phenomenon is that the architectural promise of such products was fatally flawed and delivered marginal incremental benefits sometimes rather than sustainable order of magnitude improvements of the types promised by the initial hype.

The main reasons for the past failure and future limitations of such products are (in my view) the misconception that a single component type of solution is in itself enough to take computing performance to a sufficiently high next level - compared to the comparison point of an already sophisticated SSD infrastructure.

Instead - what I call the "memoryfication" of enterprise computing - at the next level of performance will require changes in processor, memory and software architectures working together in new conceptual schemes.

And I think such solutions will be agnostic with respect to form factors and may not indeed look anything like a DIMM. Indeed they may work just as well delivered in PCIe slots (like Google's TPU) or be implemented at rack scale in fabrics.

I've discussed these ideas in a bunch of articles including:-

optimizing CPUs for use with SSDs
introducing Memory Defined Software
RAM in the post modernist SSD and Memoryfication Era
should we expect more from memory? - after AFA's what's next
are we ready for infinitely faster RAM? (what would it be worth)

split 4

before and after the memory shortages in 2017

Although the silicon based semiconductor memory industry had experienced many periods of under supply and over supply capacity since its formation - the shortages of nand flash and DRAM which began in the 2nd half of 2016 and lasted through to the first half of 2018 were like no other which had happened before - in strategic impact and lasting consequences.

Before the memory shortages of 2017 - there had been a bunch of non volatile memories which (in some cases for more than a decade) had failed to ever emerge into sticky design wins and market adoption from their seemingly never ending "emerging" status - due to their lagging too many years behind successive improvements in mainstream memory pricing per bit.

During the memory shortages - the effect of rising prices in flash and DRAM and the realization that those legacy memory roadmaps could no longer be relied on to follow the historic expectations set by past experiences were beneficial to the competitive comparisons with emerging competing nvms. It was as if the emerging nvms had got into a time machine and emerged looking 2-4 years better.

After the memory shortages of 2017 - it became clear that (as I phrased it in a 2017 article) "new notes had been added to the music of memory tiering. And while we still can't be sure which of these "no longer emerging but emerged" memories will have lasting power in the memory and SSD markets - it is clear that a significant change had occurred and (for a forseeable bunch of years) there is no going back to the just 2 main types of memory model for future SSD designers and memoryfication architects. Memory designs will change. Processor designs will change. Architecture will change to incorporate the capabilities of new types of memory.

A much longer list of market impacts can be seen in my article - miscellaneous consequences of the 2017 memory shortages.

The causes and analysis of market events leading up to the shortages along with contemporaneous commentaries can be seen in the news archives of and other historic web sites which discussed the memory and SSD markets at that time.

split 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10...

insert your own here

I'm sure that many of you having reached this point may be wondering - why didn't I mention a particular thing which you believe is just as important as those above.

I'd like to think that having written so many articles about SSDs - maybe I already did write about some of those other things before. But if I didn't - then I'm sorry. I'm glad I finished this one. It's the last main article about SSDs I'll be writing about SSDs this side of retirement. (Or maybe ever.)

Thanks for reading it.

And if it's given you some ideas - then that's what I was hoping.

Here's a very old article I feel proud to have written.

why buy SSDs? - pioneering use value propositions

Bye for now and take care.

some earlier related blogs

SSD market history

40 years of thinking about non volatile memory endurance

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