Great analysis and news from Topher Kessler at C|Net regarding competition in the flash memory industry. I have to say keep your eyes peeled between now and September and track those prices closely through both Amazon and Newegg. They are neck and neck when it comes to prices on any of big name brand SSDs. Samsung and Intel would be at the top of my list going into the Fall, but don’t be too quick to purchase your gear. Just wait for it as Intel goes up against OCZ and Crucial and Kingston.
The amount of change in prices will likely vary based on total capacity of each drive (that’s a fixed cost due to the chip count in the device). So don’t expect a 512GB SSD to be dropping by 50% by the end of Summer. It’s not going to be that drastic. But the price premium brought about by the semi-false scarcity of the SSDs is what is really going to be disappearing once the smaller vendors are eliminated from the market. I will be curious to see how Samsung fares in this battle between the other manufacturers as they were not specifically listed as a participant in the price war. However being a chip manufacturer gives them a genuine advantage as they supply many of the people who design and manufacture SSDs with Flash memory chips.
A flash array controller needs: “An architecture built from the ground up around SSD technology that sizes cache, bandwidth, and processing power to match the IOPS that SSDs provide while extending their endurance. It requires an architecture designed to take advantage of SSDs unique properties in a way that makes a scalable all-SSD storage solution cost-effective today.”
I think that Storage Controllers are the point of differentiation now for the SSDs coming on the market today. Similarly the device that ties those SSDs into the comptuer and its OS are equally, nay more important. I’m thinking specifically about a product like the SandForce 2000 series SSD controllers. They more or less provide a SATA or SAS interface into a small array of flash memory chips that are made to look and act like a spinning hard drive. However, time is coming soon now where all those transitional conventions can just go away and a clean slate design can go forward. That’s why I’m such a big fan of the PCIe based flash storage products. I would love to see SandForce create a disk controller with one interface that speaks PCIe 2.0/3.0 and the other is just open to whatever technology Flash memory manufacturers are using today. Ideally then the Host Bus would always be a high speed PCI Express interface which could be licensed or designed from the ground up to speed I/O in and out of the Flash memory array. On the memory facing side it could be almost like an FPGA made to order according to the features, idiosyncrasies of any random Flash Memory architecture that is shipping at the time of manufacture. Same would apply for any type of error correction and over-provisioning for failed memory cells as the SSD ages through multiple read/write cycles.
In this article I quoted at the top from The Register, the big storage array vendors are attempting to market new products by adding Flash memory to either one component of the whole array product or in the case off EMC the whole product uses Flash memory based SSDs throughout. That more aggressive approach has seemed to be overly cost prohibitive given the manufacturing cost of large capacity commodity hard drives. But they problem is, in the market where these vendors compete, everyone pays an enormous price premium for the hard drives, storage controllers, cabling and software that makes it all work. Though the hard drive might be cheaper to manufacture, the storage array is not and that margin is what makes Storage Vendors a very profitable business to be in. As stated last week in the benchmark comparisons of High Throughput storage arrays, Flash based arrays are ‘faster’ per dollar than a well designed, engineered top-of-the-line hard drive based storage array from IBM. So for the segment of the industry that needs the throughput more than the total space, EMC will likely win out. But Texas Memory Systems (TMS) is out there too attempting to sign up OEM contracts with folks attempting to sell into the Storage Array market. The Register does a very good job surveying the current field of vendors and manufacturers trying to look at which companies might buy a smaller company like TMS. But the more important trend being spotted throughout the survey is the decidedly strong move towards native Flash memory in the storage arrays being sold into the Enterprise market. EMC has a lead, that most will be following real soon now.
What OCZ (and other companies) ultimately need to do is introduce a SSD controller with a native PCI Express interface (or something else other than SATA). SandForce’s recent SF-2000 announcement showed us that SATA is an interface that simply can’t keep up with SSD controller evolution. At peak read/write speed of 500MB/s, even 6Gbps SATA is barely enough. It took us years to get to 6Gbps SATA, yet in about one year SandForce will have gone from maxing out 3Gbps SATA on sequential reads to nearing the limits of 6Gbps SATA.
It doesn’t appear the RevoDrive X2 is all that much better than four equivalent sized SSD drives in a four drive RAID Level 0 array. But hope springs eternal, and the author sums up where manufacturers should go with their future product announcements. I think everyone agrees SATA is the last thing we need to get full speed out of the Flash based SSDs, we need SandForce controllers with native PCIe interfaces and then maybe we will get our full money’s worth out of the SSDs we will buy in the near future. As an enterprise data center architect, I would seriously be following these product announcements and architecture requirements. Shrewdly choosing your data center storage architecture (what mix of spinning disks and SSD do you really need) will be a competitive advantage for data mining, Online Transaction Processing, and Cloud based software applications.
Until this article came out yesterday I was unaware that OCZ had an SSD product with a SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) interface. That drive is called the IBIS and OCZ describes the connector as HSDL (High Speed Data Link-an OCZ created term). Benchmarks of that device have shown it to be faster than it’s RevoDrive counterpart which uses an old style native hard drive interface (SATA). Anandtech is lobbying to dump SATA altogether even now that the most recent SATA version supports higher throughput (so called SATA 6). The legacy support built into the SATA interface is absolutely unnecessary given the speed of today’s flash memory chips and the SSDs they are designed into. SandForce has further complicated the issue by showing that their drive controllers can vastly out pace even SATA 6 drive interfaces. So as I have concluded in previous blog entries PCIe is the next logical and highest speed option after you look at all the spinning hard drive interfaces currently on the market. The next thing that needs to be addressed is the cost of designing and building these PCIe based SSD drives in the coming year. $1200 seems to be the going price for anything in the 512GB range with roughly 700MB/second data throughput. Once the price goes below the $1,0000 mark, I think the number of buyers will go up (albeit still niche consumers like PC Gamers). In the end we can only benefit by manufacturers dumping SATA for the PCIe interface and the Anandtech quote at the top of the blog, really reinforces what I’ve been observing so far this year.
One cannot make this stuff up, two weeks ago Angelbird announced its bootable PCI Express SSD. Late yesterday OCZ one of the biggest 3rd party after market makers of SSDs announces a new PCI Express SSD which is also bootable. Big difference between the Angelbird product and OCZ’s RevoDrive is the throughput on the top end. This means if you purchase the most expensive fully equipped card from either manufacturer you will get 900+MBytes/sec. on the Angelfire versus 700+MBytes/sec. on the Revodrive from OCZ. Other differences include the ‘native’ support of the OCZ on the Host OS. I think this means that they aren’t using the ‘virtual OS’ on the embedded chips to boot so much as having the PCIe drive electronics make everything appear to be a real native boot drive. Angelbird uses an embedded OS to virtualize and abstract the hardware so that you get to boot any OS you want and run it off the flash memory onboard.
The other difference I can see from reading the announcements is that only the largest configured size on the Angelbird that gets you the fastest throughput. As drives are added the RAID array is striped over more available flash drives. The OCZ product also does a RAID array to increase speed, however they hit the maximum throughput at an intermediate size (~250GByte configuration) and at the maximum size too. So if you want an ‘normal’ to ‘average’ size storage but better throughput you don’t have to buy the maxed out most expensive version of the OCZ RevoDrive to get there. Which means this could be a more manageable price for the gaming market or for the PC fanboys who want faster boot times. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not recommending buying an expensive 250GByte RevoDrive if a similarly sized SATA SSD costs a good deal less. No far from it, the speed difference may not be worth the price you pay. But, the RevoDrive could be upgraded over time and keep your speeds at the max 700+MBytes/sec. you get with its high throughput intermediate configuration. Right now, I don’t have any prices to compare for either the Angelbird or OCZ Revodrive products. I can tell you however that the Fusion-io low end desktop product is in the $700-$800 range and doesn’t come with upgradeable storage, you get a few sizes to choose from, and that’s it. If either of the two products ship at a price significantly less than the Fusion-io product everyone will flock to them I’m sure.
Two other significant features touted by both product announcements are the SandForce SF-1200 flash controller. Right now that controller is the de facto standard high throughput part everyone is using for the SATA SSD products. There’s even an intermediate part on the market called the SF-1500 (their top end offering). So it’s de rigeur to include the SandForce SF-1200t in any product you hope to sell to a wide audience (especially hardware fanboys). However, let me caution you that in the flurry of product announcements and always keeping an eye on preventing buyers remorse, SandForce did announce very recently a new drive controller they have labelled the SF-2000 series. This part may or may not be targeted for the consumer desktop market, but depending on how well it performs once it starts shipping you may want to wait and see if the revision of this crop of newly announced PCIe cards adopts the SandForce controller chip to gain the extra throughput it is touting. The new controller is rated at 740MBytes/sec. all by itself, with 4 SSDs attached to it on a PCIe card, theoretically four times 740 equals 2,096 and that is a substantially large quantity of data coming through th PCI Express data bus. Luckily for most of us the PCI Express interface on a 4X (four lane) data bus has a while to go before it gets saturated by all this disk throughput. The question is how long will it take to overwhelm the a four lane PCI Express connector? I hope to see the day this happens.
Tuesday Samsung announced that it had begun mass-producing the industry’s first 3-bit-per-cell, 64 Gb (8 GB) MLC NAND flash chip using 20-nm-class processing. The news follows Samsung’s introduction of 32 Gb (4 GB) 3-bit NAND flash using 30-nm-class processing last November, and the company’s 32 Gb MLC NAND using 20-nm-class processing unleashed in April.
Samsung’s product development keeps arriving faster and harder each revision of the product cycle. And competition is not slowing down. There are at least two other big flash memory manufacturers who are moving into the ~20nm-class of flash memory too. So three big manufacturers all manufacturing roughly the same ‘feature size’ and Apple sucking up all the supply. If it’s possible for an oversupply to occur it won’t be until next year I am sure and then hopefully prices will start to fall somewhat for the SSD market. Also add to this the Apple style packaging of multiple 64Gbit chips sandwiched one on top of the other to keep everything tidying in one small footprint and you have got ultra dense chips going into products now. In the iPhone and iPad they can layer up to 8 or 16 of those chips into one physical package to save room. This means we could see iPhones hitting 64Gbytes of storage and the iPad could reach 128Gbytes. It will truly be a new day once both of these devices hit these levels of storage. Consider my Mac mini from 2008. It has a spinning hard drive that is only 80Gbytes total. That my friends is a revolution in the making.
SandForce has now announced an SF-2000 controller that doubles up the I/O performance of the SF-1500. The new product runs at 60,000 sustained read and write IOPS and does 500MB/sec when handling read or write data. It uses a 6Gbit/s SATA interface and SandForce says it can make use of single-level cell flash, MLC or the enterprise MLC put out by Micron.
Sandforce is continuing to make great strides in its SSDdisk controller architecture. There’s no stopping the train now. But as always read the fine print on any SSD product you buy and find out who manufactures the drive controller and what version it is. Benchmarks are always a good thing to consult too before you buy.