Seems like it was only two years ago when OCZ bought out memory controller and intellectual property (IP) holder Indilinx for it’s own branded SSD products. At the time everyone was buying SandForce memory controllers to keep up with the Joneses. Speed-wise and performance-wise SandForce was king. But with so many competitors about using the same memory controller there was no way to make a profit with a commodity technology. The thought was generally performance isn’t always the prime directive regarding SSDs. Going forward, price would be much more important. Anyone owning their own Intellectual Property wouldn’t have to pay license fees to companies like SandForce to stay in the business. So OCZ being on a wild profitable tear, bought out Indilinx a designer of NAND/Flash memory controllers. The die was cast and OCZ was in the drivers seat, creating the the Consumer market for high performance lower cost SSD drives. Market value went up and up, whispers were reported of a possible buy out of OCZ from larger hard drive manufacturers. The price of $1Billion was also mentioned in connection with this.
Two years later, much has changed. There’s been some amount of shift in the market from 2.5″ SATA drives to smaller and more custome designs. Apple jumped from SATA to PCIe with its MacBook Air just this past Fall 2013. The m2 form factor is really well liked in the tablet and lightweight laptop sector. So who knew OCZ was losing it’s glamor to such a degree that they would sell? And not just at the level of 10x cheaper than their hightest profile price from 2 years ago. No, not 10x, but more likely 100x cheaper that what they would have asked for 2 years ago. Two whole orders of magnitude less, very roughly, exactly 35Million dollars along with a large number of negotiated guarantees to keep the support/warranty system in place and not tarnish the OCZ brand (for now). This story is told over and over again to entrpreneurs and magnate wannabees. Sell, sell, sell. No harm in that. But just make sure you’re selling too early rather than too late.
The schedules may help back mounting beliefs that the iPhone 5 will 64GB iPhone 4 prototype appeared last month that hinted Apple was exploring the idea as early as last year. Just on Tuesday, a possible if disputed iPod touch with 128GB of storage also appeared and hinted at an upgrade for the MP3 player as well. Both the iPhone and the iPod have been stuck at 32GB and 64GB of storage respectively since 2009 and are increasingly overdue for additional space.
Toshiba has revised its flash memory production lines again to keep pace with the likes of Intel, Micron and Samsung. Higher densities and smaller form factors seemed to indicate they are gearing up for a big production run of the highest capacity memory modules they can make. It’s looking like a new iPhone might be the candidate to receive newer multi-layer single chip 64GB Flash memory modules this year.
A note of caution in this arms race of ever smaller feature sizes on the flash memory modules, the smaller you go the less memory read/write cycles you get. I’m becoming aware that each new generation of flash memory production has lost an amount of robustness. This problem has been camouflaged maybe even handled outright by the increase in over-provisioning of chips on a given size Solid State Disk (sometimes as low as 17% more chips than that which is typically used when the drive is full). Through careful statistical modeling and use of algorithms, an ideal shuffling of the deck of available flash memory chips allows the load to be spread out. No single chip fails as it’s workload is shifted continuously to insure it doesn’t receive anywhere near the maximum number of reliable read write cycles. Similarly, attempts to ‘recover’ data from failing memory cells within a chip module are also making up for these problems. Last but not least outright error-correcting hardware has been implemented on chip to insure everything just works from the beginning of the life of the Solid State Disk (SSD) to the finals days of its useful life.
We may not see the SSD eclipse the venerable kind off high density storage, the Hard Disk Drive (HDD). Given the point of diminishing return provided by Moore’s Law (scaling down increases density, increases speed, lowers costs), Flash may never get down to the level of density we enjoy in a typical consumer brand HDD (2TBytes). We may have to settle for other schemes that get us to that target through other means. Which brings me to my favorite product of the moment, the PCIe based SSD. Which is nothing more than a big circuit board with a bunch of SSD’s tied together in a disk array with a big fat memory controller/error-correction controller sitting on it. In terms of speeds using the PCI Express bus, there are current products that beat single SATA 6 SSDs by a factor of two. And given the requirements of PCI, the form factor of any given module could be several times bigger and two generations older to reach the desired 2Terbyte storage of a typical SATA Hard Drive of today. Which to me sounds like a great deal if we could also see drops in price and increases in reliability by using older previous generation products and technology.
But the mobile market is hard to please, as they are driving most decisions when it comes to what kind of Flash memory modules get ordered en masse. No doubt Apple, Samsung and anyone in consumer electronics will advise manufacturers to consistently shrink their chip sizes to increase density and keep prices up on final shipping product. I don’t know how efficiently an iPhone or iPad use the available memory say on a 64GByte iTouch let’s say. Most of that goes into storing the music, TV shows, and Apps people want to have readily available while passing time. The beauty of that design is it rewards consumption by providing more capacity and raising marginal profit at the same time. This engine of consumer electronics design doesn’t look likely to end in spite of the physical limitations of shrinking down Flash memory chips. But there will be a day of reckoning soon, not unlike when Intel hit the wall at 4Ghz serial processors and had to go multi-core to keep it’s marginal revenue flowing. It’s been very lateral progress in terms of processor performance since then. It is more than likely Flash memory chips cannot get any smaller without being really unreliable and defective, thereby sliding into the same lateral incrementalism Intel has adopted. Get ready for the plateau.
Seeing this announcement reminded me a little of the old IBM Microdrive. A 1.8″ wide spinning disk that fit into a Compact Flash sized form factor (roughly 1.8″ square). Those drives were at the time 340MB and astoundingly dense storage format that digital photographs gravitated to very quickly. Eventually this Microdrive was improved up to around 1GByte per drive in the same small form factor. Eventually the market for this storage dried up as smaller and smaller cameras became available with larger and larger amounts of internal storage and slots for removable storage like Sony’s Memory stick format or the SD Card format. The Microdrive was also impeded by a very high cost per MByte versus other available storage by the end of its useful lifespan.
But no one knows what new innovative products might hit the market. Laptop manufacturers continued to improve on their expansion bus known as PCMCIA, PC Card and eventually Card Bus. The idea was you could plug any kind of device you wanted into that expansion bus connect to a a dial-up network, a wired Ethernet network or a Wireless network. Card Bus was 32-bit clean and designed to be as close to the desktop PCI expansion bus as possible. Folks like Toshiba were making small hard drives that would fit the tiny dimensions of that slot, containing all the drive electronics within the Card Bus card itself. Storage size improved as the hard drive market itself improved the density of it’s larger 2.5″ and 3.5″ desktop hard drive product.
I remember the first 5GByte Card Bus hard drive and marveling at how far folks at Toshiba and Samsung had outdistanced IBM. Followed soon after by the 10GByte drive. However just as we wondered how cool this was, Apple created a copy of a product being popularized by a company named Rio. It was a new kind of hand held music player that primarily could play back audio .mp3 files. It could hold 5GBytes of music (compared to 128MBytes and 512MBytes for most top of the line Rio products at the time). It had a slick, and very easy to navigate interface with a spinning wheel you could click down on with the thumb of your hand. Yes it was the first generation iPod and it demanded a large quantity of those little bitty hard drives Samsung and Toshiba were bringing to market.
Each year storage density would increase and a new generation of drives would arrive. Each year a new iPod would hit the market taking advantage of the new hard drives. The numbers seemed to double very quickly. 20Gig, 30Gig-the first ‘video’ capable iPod, 40Gig,60gig,120gig and finally today the iPod Classic at a whopping 160GBytes of storage! And then the great freeze, the slowdown and transition to Flash memory based iPods which were mechanically solid state. No moving parts, no chance for mechanical failure, no loss of data and speeds unmatched by any hard drive of any size currently on the market. The Flash storage transition also meant lower power requirements, longer battery time and now for the first time the real option of marrying a cell phone with your iPod (I do know there was an abortive attempt to do this on a smaller scale with Motorola phones @ Cingular). The first two options were 4GB and 8GB iPhones using the solid state flash memory. So wither the iPod classic?
iPod Classic is still on the market for those wishing to pay slightly less than the price for an iPod touch. You get much larger amount of total storage (video and audio both) but things have stayed put at 160GBytes for a very long time now. Manufacturers like Toshiba haven’t come out with any new product seeing the end in sight for the small 1.8″ hard drive. Samsung dropped it’s 1.8″ hard drives altogether seeing where Apple was going with its product plan. So I’m both surprised and slightly happy to see Toshiba soldier onward bringing out a new product. I’m thinking Apple should really do a product refresh on the iPod classic. They could also add iOS as a means of up-scaling and up-marketing the device to people who cannot afford the iPod Touch, leaving the price right where it is today.
I remember reading announcements of the 64GB SDXC card format coming online from Toshiba. And just today Samsung has announced it’s making a single chip 64GB flash memory module with a built-in memory controller. Apple’s iPhone design group has been big fans of the single chip large footprint flash memory from Toshiba. They bought up all of Toshiba’s supply of 32GB modules before they released the iPhone 3GS last Summer. Samsung too was providing the 32GB modules to Apple prior to the launch. Each Summer newer bigger modules are making for insanely great things that the iPhone can do. Between the new flash memory recorders from Panasonic/JVC/Canon and the iPhone what will we do with the doubling of storage every year? Surely there will be a point of diminishing return, where the chips cannot be made any thinner and stacked higher in order to make these huge single chip modules. I think back to the slow evolution and radical incrementalism in the iPod’s history going from 5GB’s of storage to start, then moving to 30GB and video! Remember that? the Video iPod @ 30GBytes was dumbfounding at the time. Eventually it would top out at 120 and now 160GBytes total on the iPod classic. At the rate of change in the flash memory market, the memory modules will double in density again by this time next year, achieving 128GBytes for a single chip modules with embedded memory controller. At that density a single SDHC sized memory card will also be able to hold that amount of storage as well. We are fast approaching the optimal size for any amount of video recording we could ever want to do and still edit when we reach the 128 Gbyte mark. At that size we’ll be able to record 1080p video upwards of 20 hours or more on today’s video cameras. Who wants to edit much less watch 20 hours of 1080p video? But for the iPhone, things are different, more apps means more fun. And at 128GB of storage you never have to delete an app, or an single song from your iTunes or a single picture or video, just keep everything. Similarly for those folks using GPS, you could keep all the maps you ever wanted to use right onboard rather than download them all the time thus providing continuous navigation capabilities like you would get with a dedicated GPS unit. I can only imagine the functionality of the iPhone increasing as a result of the increased storage 64GB Flash memory modules would provide. Things can only get better. And speaking of better, The Register just reported today some future directions.
There could be a die process shrink in the next gen flash memory products. There are also some opportunities to use slightly denser memory cells in the next gen modules. The combination of the two refinements might provide the research and design departments at Toshiba and Panasonic the ability to double the density of the SDXC and Flash memory modules to the point where we could see 128GBytes and 256GBytes in each successive revision of the technology. So don’t be surprised if you see a Flash memory module as standard equipment on every motherboard to hold the base Operating System with the option of a hard drive for backup or some kind of slower secondary storage. I would love to see that as a direction netbook or full-sized laptops might take.
SDXC is yet another memory format all manufacturers will have to adopt. Isn’t it frightening how much the removable memory market has fractured into mico-formats for memory cards. About a week ago I was playing with an Olympus voice recorder at work. It had it’s own funny shaped memory cards you had to buy from Olympus if you wanted to increase the storage size. One positive thing I will say though is this. SDHC at least has consolidated some of the mindshare around a commonly supported form factor for removable storage. Compact Flash once enjoyed a similar amount of support. But nowadays you cannot even find a laptop with CardBus slots anymore. Many add-ons for laptops are installed on internal PCIe busses now.
I hope all the device manufacturers get onboard with the SDXC format only because of the limits on the FileSystem on these cards has needed to adapt to the vagaries of long form video shooting. I remember the painful days of 4GB file size limits for video. That took a long time to dissapate on the desktop computer. It’s high time it disappeared on digital video cameras as well.
Toshiba says all three new cards will bring a maximum write speed of 35 megabytes per second and a read speed of 60 megabytes per second. For videophiles, the new SDXC format will enable video files to extend beyond the current limit of 4 gigabytes.
Toshiba currently bonds several traditional flash chips into a multi-chip stacked package. The Apple iPhone 3GS is an example of one manufacturer using this seemingly cutting edge technology. In one chip Toshiba has achieved 32GBytes of storage. But size is always a consideration for portable devices like cell phones. So how do you continue increasing the storage without making the chip too thick?
Enter the nirvana of 3D CMOS manufacturing. SanDisk and Toshiba both have aquired companies who dabbled in the 3D chip area. And I’m not talking multi-chip modules, stacked on on top of another in a really thin profile. These would be laid down one metallic layer at a time in the manufacture process, achieving the thinnest profile theoretically possible. So if you are like me and amazed that 32GBytes of Flash can fit in one chip, just wait. The densities are going to improve even more. But it’s going to be a few years into the future. Three years of development and research is going to be needed to make the 3D Flash chip a manufacturable product.
The basic idea is to stack layers of flash memory atop one another to build a higher capacity chip more cheaply than by integrating the same number of cells into a single layer chip. The stacked chip would also occupy a smaller area than a single layer chip with the same capacity.
Going back a few weeks I dug up this article about Toshiba’s groundbreaking 32nm/32GB stacked flash memory module.
Toshiba on Monday revealed that it has started shipping its 32 nanometer NAND flash memory ahead of schedule. Originally planned for the fall, the higher-density storage is already being sampled today and should be in mass production by July. The process allows a single, thin 32-gigabit (4GB) chip and, with eight stacked chips, will allow 32GB of memory in a single package.
At the time it was not announced what manufacturers were going to use the new chip. Some speculators were thinking Apple might be using it in their top of the line 32GB iPhone 3GS. And according to all the teardown accounts iFixit & Rapid Repair, the Toshiba chip is front and center on the top of the line model.
I think its great when innovations like this can make into shipping products immediately. While the cost is prohibitive for many, you can rest assured you are getting the cutting edge, the bleeding edge of technology when you buy Apple products. Why I even remember when the first video iPods with 30GB Hard drives came out. Nobody thought you would ever need that amount of space for all your music, so Apple introduced video as another reason to buy an iPod. Now we have 32GB available on the iPhone. It just gets better and better since Oct. of 2005 when that first 30GB ipod was reviewed.