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Strategic Transitions in SSD

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - December 21, 2012

This article looks over some of the many strategic transitions in the SSD market during the past year (2012).

The short version below is followed by a longer and more detailed version.

Strategic Transitions in SSD - the short version

  • most significant new SSD product type - 2.5" PCIe SSDs

    Advanced products and propotypes were shown by several leading SSD companies in 2012.

    The new form factor will significantly impinge on the established markets for PCIe SSDs, SAS SSDs and rackmount SSDs and creates new opportunities for vendors to establish leadership and differentiation.
  • most significant emerging technology - adaptive R/W DSP flash management.

    Although this technology has been around for over 2 years - 2012 was the first time that the number of SSD makers using adaptive DSP hit double digits.

    This was a fact which surprised many of the leading companies withn this technology segment when I told them they weren't as alone as they had imagined at the start of this year.
  • most searched for (and most researched - by analysts) SSD company - Fusion-io

    On the plus side - in 2012 FIO demonstrated an uncanny management ability to anticipate, digest and react to the many competing business and technology forces which touched on the company's activities within the enterprise SSD market - which Fusion-io demonstrated by achieving year on year revenue growth rates very close to the exact numbers which the company had offered as guidance in the year before.

    But still unknown (at the time of publishing this) is FIO's public response to adaptive R/W technology.

    When I published a SWOT risk assessment of adaptive R/W for leading SSD companies in July 2012 - Fusion-io told me it didn't want to reveal what its exact strategy for adopting this technology would be.

    FIO wasn't the only company to decline revealing its future plans about this detailed level of technology and its reticence is understandable.

    SSD analysts like me (and competitors) can infer a lot about future product directions, the likely product mix and even the probable timing of new SSD models from simply knowing that a company in the fast SSD segment has serious thoughts about using adaptive R/W. Nevertheless - the assumptions I made in my article analyzed the probable options.
For longer versions of what happened in the SSD market in 2012 - take a look at these resources:-
  • SSD Buyers Guide - includes a rolling summary of key market milestones in the SSD market in the past year
  • Storage market history - aka archived news - has more stories and more detail - although depending when you read this article - some of it may still be in the live SSD news.
What will you be reading more about in the SSD news pages in 2013?
  • All the above plus
  • acquisitions - there already have been a lot. There will be a lot more.
  • ratios - the ideal ratios of different types of SSD storage in user environments will become clearer.

    This will help users manage their budgets and provide pragmatic comparison points for deciding if the solutions they're being offered are technically appropriate for their needs and offer good value.

    Users will evolve their own rules for what proportion of SSDs in different speed ranges give them good results in a way they can sustainably afford.

    We''ll also learn more also about the ratio of different types of memory being supplied to the SSD market - and learn to spot the danger signs of looming obsolescence in memory types.
  • efficiency - is a high level comparison metric which can tell you a lot about how well all the parts of an SSD design work together.

    When you learn that SSD-X can be used in exactly the same application role as the competing SSD-Y while using 30% less flash chips - for example - you feel you know something useful about comparing these SSDs - even without having to get into the difficult technology details. You also know something useful about their business prospects too.
  • reliability - vendor claims about SSD reliability will branch out into different directions.

    Do you really care if the endurance of SSD-X is 20x better than some older way of managing flash?

    Do some ways of managing high availability in SSD racks sound much safer to you than others?

    Or do you prefer your own way of assessing and managing SSD reliability because it takes into account risks and consequences which are more relevant to you than than generalist approaches?

Strategic Transitions in SSD - the slightly longer version

The SSD market in 2012 had all the symptoms of a market which was confidently growing and on its way towards much bigger and better things.

One sign of this was that new companies were unafraid to abandon heavily fought for positions (such as the established credibility of particular memory types and controller architectures). We learned about new ways to reset - what we thought had been - intrinsic hard-wired limits on flash speed, power consumption, reliability, density and cost.

So any idea that the pace of change might slow down and settle into some kind of cosy consolidation is still many years into the future.

"SSD" means "flash"

When people talk about SSDs - the memory type they're talking about is nearly always nand flash.

RAM SSDs have shrunk to become less than 2% of total shipped SSD capacity. While RAM caches in flash SSDs average out even smaller than that.

Meanwhile - despite over a decade of talk about flash killer non volatile memory alternatives - my analysis is that such memories would do well to reach even as high as single digit percentage market share within SSDs in the next 3 years.

a note on flash diversity

In addition to all the usual types of flash memory (which I won't bother listing here - but as you know all their names all end in "LC") here's a new flash type to think about.

this exact same flash memory is significantly different (in speed and reliability) to this exact same flash memory in these cases
  • same controller - but different preconditioned program times
  • different type of controller - classical versus adaptive
  • different type of controller - adaptive optimized for market A versus adaptive optimized for market B
Many permutations of desirable characteristics are possible - which manipulate speed, power consumption, efficiency and reliability.

A safe rule of thumb is that knowing the generic memory type characteristics doesn't give you enough useful info about the SSD's characteristics and limitations any more. Whereas only a few years ago - knowing the exact memory type was an essential starting point in understanding the SSD.

The top SSD companies in 2012

If we look at the top 5 SSD companies that people were reading about and researching during 2012 - there was a hard core of 4 companies which stayed in the list for all 4 quarters.
  • Violin and STEC - each having been at #2 or #3 for 1 or more quarters
  • OCZ - mostly at the #4 position
In the already published editions of the top SSD companies list (for Q1, Q2 and Q3 2012) - both LSI and Texas Memory Systems have put in appearances within the top 5 companies.

However, it now looks almost certain that in the Q4 2012 edition of the list - which will be published in mid January 2013 - there will be 2 new companies in the top 6 range which have never previously had such high listings before.

This demonstrates that even within an SSD market numbering over 400 active companies - there's still sufficient elasticity in the minds of SSD decision makers to make significant new accomodations in their thinking for a few new SSD brands - even at the top end.

enterprise SSD market

Surviving and triving in the enterprise SSD market has become very challenging - with yesterday's hard won "conventional wisdom" becoming tomorrow's must-forget because it's now obsolete idea. I listed defensive strategies in a survivor's guide.

How many distinctly different types of SSDs do users need to satisfy all future projected requirement?

The exact number depends on how big and diverse the apps are and the market you're in.

For most organizations the answer is more than 1 type and the maximum (assuming you're the US government) is 7.

What they are - and how they relate to each other is described in an introduction to enterprise SSD silos.

SSD software

The current state of the SSD software is not at all what you'd expect if you had any previous experience of traditional computer markets. I explained the reasons why in an article.

If you haven't yet acquired an SSD company - there are some still left. I warn a bunch of readers last year that owning an SSD company would become less of a competitive differentiator when it became the norm.

If you do a good job virtualizing the SSD - and SSDs become the computer - then a small number of top SSD software solutions have the potential to become the gateway to everything that will be important in computing - even more important than the choice of SSD hardware, OS or CPU type.

In the long term future most of the critical systems code in an apps server will be about the SSD. This very serious idea was explored in a spoof article - Fusion-io acquires Microsoft's server business

industrial SSDs

Within a few shrink generations - SLC will present exactly the same data state discrimination problems which MLC controller designers met years ago. If you need an MLC type of controller to manage this - it will mean that future generations of SLC have no reason to exist.

Another reason SLC might cease to be commercially available might be that it will become such as small part of the memory mix that high volume memory makers don't find it worthwhile producing any more.

These are some of the memory roadmap realities for industrial SSD makers.

military SSDs

The economics and logistics of true military SSDs are different. Even if standard memory makers stop making SLC - feasible options for mil SSD makers will be - stockpiling or setting up a low volume military market focused fab to continue making large geometry SLC - until something better (in hard nvm terms) comes along.

consumer SSDs

Users in other markets have been technically clever enough to deploy new SSDs despite not having everything already neatly laid out for them - or have had sufficient cost / benefit inventives to adapt and integrate the SSD they like with the software they like.

Not so - with the consumer - who ever since the notebook SSD market started in 2006 - has been offered SSD based solutions such as notebooks and tablets which fall a long way short of what they should reasonable expect - partly because of the bad state of the SSD software market - but mostly because of too much HDD thinking behind most notebook SSDs.

In the past year or so we have seen the emergence of SSD based notbooks which are acceptable. But there's still a lot of headroom available in terms of what this type of product should do and what it should cost.

The industry has blamed the low take up of SSD notebooks on cost - but the real culprit was badly designed products.

One impact of the consumerization of the cloud - is that the capacity in the notebook doesn't define how many videos you can watch or how much music you can hear.

That factor could speed up SSD adoption and render the higher capacities of hard drives irrelevant for a significant proportion of the market.

conclusion

As the SSD market gets bigger - the incentive for clever minds to focus on its roadblocks and problems has grown too.

Despite all the changes we've seen in 2012 - I'm confident that in future years we'll look back and say - 2012 was a quiet year compared to what's going on now.

Happy Holidays
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It looks like you're seriously interested in SSDs. So please bookmark this page and come back again soon.

Also - if you've got the time - you might want to take a look at the top 100 most popular SSD articles seen by our readers in the last month or so.
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