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Shakeout looms in SSD arena

Posted: 29 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solid-state drives  NAND flash memory  shakeout  hard drives 

The battle is heating up in solid-state drives (SSDs). An endless stream of companies are expanding or entering the SSD fray, leaving many to predict a shakeout in the arena.

Intel, Micron, SanDisk, Stec, Toshiba and countless others have recently rolled out new SSDs. On Tuesday (Aug. 27), Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd said that it has begun sampling a new line of low-cost SSDs, said to be only 30 per cent of the size of 2.5-inch products.

Samsung's new, lower-density SSDs are going after the emerging ultra mobile PC market. By unit sales, the low-density SSD market is expected to increase annually by 57 per cent until 2011, according to the Korean chip giant.

Based on NAND flash memory, SSDs are supposed to replace hard drives in select applications, such as mobile PCs, notebooks and enterprise servers. But SSDs are still more expensive than hard drives and the price delta between the two technologies remains wide.

Besides the cost issues, the SSD market is due for a shakeout. Some 50 companies are competing in the overcrowded SSD market, said Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis.

And there is still a lot of hype in the arena. Low-capacity SSDs are being used in some ultra mobile PCs. SSDs are also being used in notebook PCs, but those systems are expensive and generally carry Rs.85,716.92 ($2,000) price points, said Jim Cantore, president of consulting firm JLC Associates.

The ''sweet spot'' in the notebook PC market is generally considered systems that sell from Rs.34,286.77 to Rs.42,858.46 ($800 to $1,000) Cantore said. Those systems use cheaper hard drives, it was noted.

The missing piece in mainstream notebook PCs are higher-capacity, lower-priced SSDs, he said. Many SSDs in the market are expensive 120GB units. A low-priced, 256GB SSD is required for today's notebooks, he added.

Intel vs. Samsung

Another question looms: Which company will survive—and take the leadership role—in the SSD market?

It's up for grabs, but Samsung appears to be a long-term threat. NAND flash suppliers Micron, SanDisk and Toshiba are viable, but they all face challenges. Disk-drive giant Seagate could be a darkhorse.

Non-flash memory suppliers could be in for a rough spell; they do not have NAND fabs and cannot control their component supply.

Many wonder about the fortunes of Intel Corp., which recently expanded its efforts in the SSD arena. ''The entrance of Intel into client and enterprise SSDs will expand the market in the near term, as another credible SSD supplier joins the ranks of Samsung, Stec, Toshiba and potential challengers SanDisk and Micron,'' said Joseph Unsworth, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

''However, longer term, Intel poses a serious competitive threat as a stand-alone supplier or as a possible partner (for example, Seagate has publicly stated that it is interested in pursuing enterprise-grade SSD),'' Unsworth said in a report.

''SanDisk also would be challenged by Intel's presence because SanDisk has been slow to get its next-generation SSD to market and does not have the enterprise relationships necessary to quickly penetrate the enterprise segment,'' he said. ''This is especially true because SanDisk's strength is in retail, and there will be limited traction of SSDs in retail for at least the next three years.''

Meanwhile, Samsung claims to have the magic formula in SSDs. It has expanded its SSD market offerings since it introduced its first SSD in 2006 in 16GB and 32GB capacities targeted at the ultra mobile PC market. This was followed by the announcement of the 64GB SSD in 2007, a 128GB SSD in 2008, and sampling of a 256GB SSD in the second half of 2008.

Samsung is also reportedly the SSD supplier in Apple Computer Inc.'s notebook system, it was noted.

Samsung looks solid

With the introduction of its new SSDs, Samsung claims to offer an attractive replacement for existing hard drives used in low-cost PCs. Available in densities of 8-, 16- and 32GB, the new multi-level-cell SSDs will be mass produced beginning next month.

''We've refined our manufacturing techniques and redesigned our low-density SSDs to get what the low-priced PC market is looking for in the way of improved cost, performance and availability,'' said Jim Elliott, vice president of memory marketing at San Jose-based Samsung Semiconductor Inc., in a statement.

The SSDs use the same SATA II controller technology as that being used on Samsung's just-introduced MLC-based 128GB SSD. Its new MLC-based SSD at 32GB capacity will read data at 90MBps and write it at 70MBps. The 16GB unit reads at 90MBps and writes at 45MBps, while the 8GB product reads at 90MBps and writes at 25MBps.

Samsung incorporates four individual 16Gbit MLC NAND chips in its 8GB SSD, as well as four dual-die packages and four quad-die packages of 16Gbit NAND for its 16GB and 32GB SSDs, respectively.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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