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SST, Insyde team on flash-based PC storage

Posted: 10 Oct 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:flash-based storage? flash memory? PC flash platform? hybrid hard drive? VoIP?

Flash vendor Silicon Storage Technology Inc. (SST) and BIOS developer Insyde Software Corp. are collaborating on a new platform for flash-based storage in the PC. The duo hope their approach, called FlashMate, spawns a fresh class of PC applications and utilities to drive use of their flash chips and software.

FlashMate is essentially an extension of the existing NANDDrive from SST combined with new systems software from Taiwan's Insyde. The resulting chips and code will support the existing hybrid hard drive features defined by Microsoft Corp. In addition, FlashMate will let users access data on a system's hard drive via a USB device, even if the computer's CPU is essentially shut down in an S3-S5 low power state.

FlashMate could let users synch peripherals, play media on a hard drive or make VoIP calls without going through a CPU, thus saving power and time. The approach also lets users access Side Show, a Microsoft Vista feature for peripherals that, among other things, lets notebooks display data on a small external LCD on the their lid even when the system is closed and in low power mode.

"We want to give OEMs a whole new way to look at what they can do with hybrid drives," said Yuping Chung, a business director at SST.

"We will provide a software developers kit and some sample apps so that OEMs can create applications for their users with this platform," said Stephen Gentile, a senior VP and co-founder of Insyde. "We are looking for applications partners, too," he said.

Flash on PCs
It is still early days for the concept and thus hard to determine whether it could catch on. SST does not yet have its FlashMate silicon ready and Insyde has yet to finish its software or land any partners or design wins.

But clearly computer makers are putting increasing amounts of flash memory in their systems, driving hopes for many new approaches. Intel has defined a Turbo Boost internal flash card for notebooks previously known as Robeson that has appeared in several notebooks. Microsoft has defined the hybrid hard drive that uses some internal flash. Both aim to speed processes such as booting a system and loading applications.

Separately a growing number of companies are building solid state drives (SSDs) for notebooks and servers. Those drives are gaining traction in models that want the lowest power or highest reliability.

"The bulk of the new NAND flash going into computers will be in the form of these solid-state drives, rather than the Intel or Microsoft approaches, said Adrienne Downey, an analyst at Semico Research.

Joseph Unsworth, a principal analyst for NAND flash at Gartner Group, agreed. "SSDs have a vibrant opportunity because they are already getting support from top OEMS such as Dell and HP," he said.

Gartner predicts by 2011, as many as 43 million SSDs will ship in a variety of mainly notebook and server systems. Hybrid hard drives may reach 30 million units and Intel Turbo Boost cards may reach 25 million units by 2010, Unsworth said. Today all three approaches are likely to ship less than a million units a year in 2007, he added.

"This year and next year we are still in education mode for any kind of NAND flash in computing," said Unsworth. "It will remain niche for the next couple years until the flash prices come down more," he added.

Promising solution
Downey said FlashMate has promise because the kinds of features it could enable would more easily appeal to end users than the more vague performance increases the Intel and Microsoft approaches promise. "Users don't see that much benefit from these hybrid hard drive approaches, so they may prefer to spend their money on additional DRAM," she said.

FlashMate is "the first product of this type I have heard of," Downey said. "But it seemed like they have not got all their ducks in a row yet," he added.

The approach will initially require two BGA chips from SST. On package will include an ARM controller and NAND flash, the other is a version of SST's NANDDrive which puts a flash controller and NOR memory in one package. Eventually, SST will put all the die in one BGA package.

The chips will ride Serial ATA 2.0 and USB 2.0 to link to the internal hard drive, chipset and external devices on a notebook. The companies have not determined yet the exact density of NAND in their initial products but have a road map that extends into multiple gigabytes.

Software for FlashMate, which will link to both the PC BIOS and external devices, is also a work in progress. "There will be mechanisms and utilities to pre-define locations on the drive for devices to access for synchronization or other features," said Gentile.

The duo plans to ship its first products before June. However it currently has no working devices or performance metrics for FlashMate. Given that situation it is not surprising the companies have not gathered any design wins or third party software partners yet.

"The approach is interesting but I'd like to see some OEM support behind it," said Unsworth of Gartner. "Ultimately their success will come down to how well they market their unique features to end users," he added.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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