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some thoughts about SSD customization

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - July 12, 2016

You don't have to look at many different SSD company web sites before you start asking yourself (as you see similar looking offerings:- consumer, industrial, enterprise, military, 2.5", mSATA, M.2, PCIe, USB yawn etc) how do these companies differentiate themselves and make money?

Before you reply with the cynical rejoinder - that's why they don't - the surprising thing I've found from talking to people in the industry is that sometimes those very companies with the samey looking websites can sometimes have very substantial revenues in the SSD market. And when I talk to them about their business development models - the aspect which explains everything is the high proportion of business they get from custom SSDs compared to standard products.

From the customer perspective - if you've never gone down the customization route for your SSDs - the first thought which might come into your mind is this...

Customization? That means doing more. More up front engineering engagement. More up front set up costs. More risk. Less competitive alternatives. More qualification time. Must mean more cost right?

Instead - the counter intuitive view I'm going to offer is - that's not the way it goes. (Otherwise no one would do it.)

The simple reason is that when you ask yourself - what's an SSD? (The age old answer it's a virtual device with an infinite range of internal and external parameters) And when you look at the cost factors which go into making an SSD - the cost isn't simply determined by what goes in - but also what stays out.

Just as with good software a well designed custom SSD can greatly benefit from the analysis of expensive functions which can be reduced in scale or avoided.

In custom SSDs this means some circuits or processing steps can be removed entirely from the bill of materials due to knowing from the system environment that they aren't needed or that an equivalent function is being done elsewhere at the system level.

This is contrast to a "similar" standard SSD design - where it wouldn't be prudent for the product manager to weaken those operating requirements - because standard SSDs have to cater for a wide range of possible customer deployments (set by industry expectations). If the design of a standard SSD is weakened in one attribute it introduces the risk of alienating an entire customer segment for whom that feature is essential. Another way to think about it is that standard SSDs are simultaneously over engineered and under egnineered for many application roles.

The ideal objectives for customers of custom SSDs can be:-
  • to get something which is otherwise impossible from a standard product (such as fitting into a non standard space)
  • to get a better product at a similar price to a standard SSD (by changing the cost benefit budget assumptions of subsystems in the SSD)
  • to get equivalent functionality (in the target system) at a lower price than using a standard SSD
  • to reduce qualification costs over the lifetime of the system in which the custom SSD is used by reducing risk factors associated with unknown internal implementation changes, product line EOL and supplier churn.
And there are benefits for SSD vendors too.
  • customization creates business opportunities for well proven technologies which otherwise in a standard market context can only be realized by the lottery of low pricing and heavy investment in marketing.

    For example a low performance SATA SSD is an expensive product to promote in today's competitive market. But if the vendor has added security features, optimized battery life, RFID tracking, and tweaked environmental factors (conformal coating, ambient temperature range etc) as a custom build for a medical equipment company - then they might anticipate a long term supply relationship for a successful partner.
  • The willingness to offer customization and professional design engineering support opens doors to valuable customers who are leaders in their own vertical markets but whose unit volumes are too small to be of interest to high volume standard SSD vendors.
  • customers are stickier (if they're satisfied) are also likely to talk to their suppliers about new projects at an earlier stage than they would if they were merely considering standard SSDs.
In the right context customization can be a win win for customers and vendors.

Even in applications where standard products can do the job (and standard product samples were used to prototype and market test the system concept) customization can often deliver lower cost.
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