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from the series - branding strategies in the SSD market

the cultivation and nurturing of "reliability" in a 2.5" SSD brand

Reliability is an important factor in many applications which use SSDs.

But can you trust an SSD brand just because it claims to be reliable?

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - July 29, 2010

As we've seen in recent years - in the rush for the SSD market bubble - many design teams which previously had little or no experience of SSDs were tasked with designing such products - and the result has been successive waves of flaky SSDs and SSDs whose specifications couldn't be relied on to remain stable and in many products the SSD performance quickly degraded in customer sites.
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Case Study - SiliconDrive product line
When SiliconSystems (later acquired by WD) started talking to me publicly in 2004 they communicated an obsession with reliability and their enthusiasm for a new business model in which their flash SSDs would replace hard drives in embedded appplications for an entirely new reason.
  • not because they were rugged - (in all these applications HDDs had been used before)
  • not because they were faster - (although they were faster - the company wasn't chasing the speed tiger like most other SSD makers)
  • not because they were cheaper - (the SiliconDrives initially cost more than the HDDs they were expected to replace)
  • but because they would be cheaper to own in applications in which users looked at the total cost of maintaining large populations of systems which had high service cost.

    Perhaps because the systems were geographically dispersed (unlike in a datacenter). Users could start to count on year on year cost reductions due to the theoretically (at that time) higher reliability design of the new SiliconDrives.
Another unusual thing at the time for a flash SSD company focusing so much on reliability was that SiliconSystems wasn't in the military market.

Until that time most flash SSD companies had previously been in the defense markets and had served long apprenticeships to prove their reliability credentials.

Was the SiliconDrive really going to be part of a genuinely new market segment in the SSD market - or just wishful thinking?

By the time I published the 2nd edition of my SSD market penetration model (in 2005) I was sufficiently convinced to add it as one of the SSD market segments.

Before the SiliconDrive it was unusual for SSD makers to talk in much detail publicly about the architectures of their products which they regarded as commercially sensitive proprietary information protected by patents and NDAs.

This was something I knew from my own dialogs with flash SSD oems and their reluctance to talk publicly about important issues like endurance. Military SSD companies did talk in detail to prospective designers and preferred to resolve issues related to reliability behind closed doors.

Right from the outset SiliconSystems's online communications and web advertising opened the door to a view of what was happening inside a flash SSD. They talked frankly about reliability issues with flash memory and how their architectures managed those problems.

For example in April 2005 the company published an article here on - Increasing Flash SSD Reliability - which showed why their way of doing wear leveling could achieve much higher operating life than other similar schemes.

In the context of SSD market history - 2005 was the year when Samsung proclaimed SSDs were a strategic market - the 1st time that a multibillion dollar company had entered the market. In the years which followed the hiatus into the SSD notebook market - it became clear to readers that there were 3 things which remained different about the SiliconDrives - compared to the many other 2.5" SSDs in the commercial SSD market.
  • SiliconDrives weren't very fast. In fact they were often 2x, 3x or 4x slower than the fastest SSDs in the same interface / capacity class.
  • SiliconDrives didn't offer high capacity. The maximum capacity of SiliconDrives was often 2x and sometimes 4x less than other 2.5" SSDs.
  • SiliconDrives were exclusively SLC. This was an MLC-free zone.
When I challenged the company's marketers about these points - far from being concerned about looking less competitive than other drives in the market - they told me there were good reasons for them never appearing in the lists of the fastest or highest capacity 2.5" flash SSDs. To summarize what they said and what I was able to interpret for myself - the arguments went something like this.
  • speed:- the applications for SiliconDrive didn't need ultimate speed. One trade-off in an SSD controller for a PATA or SATA interface is that if you dedicate a lot of CPU resources to issues like data integrity, active wear leveling, garbage collection etc - then the only way to increase performance too is to put in a faster and higher powered processor. That affects the power budget and reliability of the SSD - and could move it outside the zone where it is so attractive for embedded applications.
  • capacity:- most of the applications for early SiliconDrives were replacing HDDs in embedded systems. Unlike the notebook and enterprise server markets - these were on a different capacity roadmap. And most legacy apps didn't need headline capacity drives.
  • SLC vs MLC:- the answer here was unambiguous. The designers of the SiliconDrive did not think MLC was reliable enough for the reliability envelope they were aiming for. MLC would not be appearing in a SiliconDrive any time soon.

    I wondered about that point - because I knew the market pressures that 2.5" SSD makers were under. I expected that one day - the company which made the SiliconDrive would also want to engage in the MLC SSD market. I knew that would cause difficulties in branding.

    How would a customer be expected to differentiate between different grades of reliability in a reliable SSD?

    That decision still lay some years in the future.
In the years between 2005 and 2009 SiliconSystems published a host of white papers on flash SSD design issues - partly to make customers realize that serious reliability issues existed in all flash SSDs - and mostly to show that the company had a good story to tell about how these were managed inside their SiliconDrives.

The reliability messages went outside the SSD too - when the company alerted designers to the importance of laying out their boards carefully when using PATA drives to damp electrical noise - and the importance of building power sequencing testers to detect weaknesses in competing SSDs - which might not show up in most steady state evaluations.

Was there really a market for this type of commercial SSD - which wasn't following the fashions of the rest of the industry?

The market got an answer to that when the world's 2nd largest hard dsk maker Western Digital acquired SiliconSystems for $65 million in March 2009.

A few quarters later when I spoke to Gary Drossel, VP of Product Planning, in WD's SSD business unit he emphasized how big was the investment made for long term testing. He joked that the large number of their SSDs now undergoing long term tests in WD's labs would have almost made the Test Labs one of SiliconSystems' top 10 customers not so long before.

Then the inevitable happened. In March 2010 - the new owners of the SiliconDrive brand entered the consumer SSD market with an MLC based SSD.

What was not so inevitable was that instead of diluting all the value acquired through 6 years of promoting SiliconDrive as synonymous with "reliable SSD" - they called the new MLC family SiliconEdge Blue.

That was a very astute marketing decision.

Reliability is indivisible. You've either got it or you haven't.

...and the SiliconDrives - now in their 4th generation are starting to get a little faster too.

author's footnotes:-

WD had no idea I was writing this article - and as with all the market analysis articles I write - vendors mentioned in the text only get to see the articles after they have been published and are visible to all our readers. I always welcome insightful comments which can be appended to any new articles in the days immediately following their 1st appearance.

Here are some more articles on the theme of SSD reliability
  • SSD recovery - one way of segmenting the SSD market is to categorize SSDs into products from which you can recover data if the SSD is damaged or faulty - and those from which you can't. This issue matters a lot for some types of users and applications whereas it's irrelevant for others. There are some technical gray areas - but there are hard boundaries too. As everything which goes into an SSD has a cost - I'm surprised that "data recovery supported design" isn't a bullet point in consumer SSDs.
  • SSD power down management architectures - first published in February 2011 - this ground breaking industry survey of a topic rarely mentioned in SSD product datasheets could spark as much interest in this subject in coming years as our classic endurance article did when it first hit the web.
how banner ads helped to build the reliability message
Here are some examples of banner ads for the SiliconDrive product family which ran continuously here on in the period from 2005 to 2012.

As mentioned in the case study notes on the left - these were a small part of the web marketing assets which also included other types of ads, press releases and articles.

There are some gaps in the series shown below - when some designs were changed to communicate better.

The purpose of showing them here is not to illustrate how to design high click rate banner ads - but to show how a succession of consistent messages evolved over a period of time helped to create a trusted brand in the SSD market in the sensitive segment of SSD reliability.

The banner ads were mostly used to educate potential customers -by linking to white papers which described the technologies and concepts signposted in the banner messages.

That's in contrast to the more common use of web ads (generally) which is to link straight to products which a customer can buy.

The design and vendor qualification process for high reliability SSDs in embedded systems takes many months - and it takes longer for new companies because they have to prove to prospective customers that they really know what they're talking about and they will still be around in the long term.

For simplicity in the context of this branding article I've linked the banners below all to the same url which is a collection of white papers.

When the banner ads ran originally appeared on this site - they each linked to individual papers or related content - some of which has since moved.
start date March 2005
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start date November 2005
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start date June 2006
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start date March 2008
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start date January 2009
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start date July 2009 - end date August 2012
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