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Vendors push for flash, HDD coexistence

Posted: 18 Sep 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Flash Memory Summit? HDD? NAND? flash? Microsoft?

As the capacity of NAND flash memory chips increases, they've been cast as the war party encircling the HDDs, trying to replace the electromechanical systems with faster, lower-power solid-state solutions. However, HDD and NAND flash vendors were talking about a peaceful coexistence at the first Flash Memory Summit last August.

Many of the panel discussions described the two technologies as complementary and emphasized the importance of selecting the one most appropriate for the application.

Helping to drive coexistence are new caching technologies aimed at improving the performance of Microsoft Corp.'s forthcoming Vista OS. The ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive technologies, which will improve system boot times and the speed at which applications can launch and execute, will both leverage NAND flash caches that will be embedded in next-generation hybrid drives, said Matt Ayers, product manager for Windows client performance at Microsoft.

An alternative scheme, codenamed Robson and developed by Intel Corp., uses a small PCI Express card that contains flash memory and control logic to cache applications and usage patterns that will help the OS optimize performance over time, said Knut Grimsrud, director of storage architecture and an Intel fellow. The card is being designed to work in conjunction with the Crestline chipset, slated for introduction in 2007. Intel is working with Microsoft to certify the Robson technology for Vista.

The hybrid drives, demonstrated by Samsung and Seagate Technology LLC at the summit, combine a flash-based cache of 128-, 256- or 512Mbytes, along with the standard HDD. The flash will store software-usage patterns as well as some of the Vista startup code.

Of course, advances in flash capacity that deliver 4-8Gbits per chip in 2006 and double that in 2007 threaten makers of small hard drives, said Achim Hill, senior director of strategic marketing and product development at Micron Technology Inc. HDD minimum overhead cost is in the $40 to $50 range because of the high number of mechanical and IC components involved in their manufacture. As flash prices drop, the amount of memory that can be bought for that same overhead figure becomes the crossover capacity.

Today, that crossover is between 3Gbytes and 4Gbytes, said Pete Hazen, marketing director for IA platforms in the NAND products group at Intel. The next target for NAND flash will be the 6-12Gbyte 1-inch HDDs, a crossover that could occur in late 2007 or early 2008, Hazen predicted. But users of multilevel-cell (MLC)-based NAND flash memories are concerned about the lack of a standard interface among flash vendors.

Although all the chips have a similar basic interface, each vendor has added its own value-added feature set, and each generation of MLC memory tends to have a new, enhanced interface, thus making it hard for memory users to switch vendors to get the best price.

In an attempt to achieve some standardization, Intel, Micron and others have created an initiativethe Open NAND Flash Interfacethat they hope will provide customers with a common interface they can use in their designs, said Ed Doller, CTO of Intel's flash memory group. The ONFI approach may provide a standard interfacesimilar in some ways to the integrated drive electronics interface used on disk drivesthat would be used to communicate with any NAND flash component. It would allow any memory chip to be used with minimal setup, said Doller.

Mobile moves
Mobile applications are also moving rapidly to NAND flash. Higher-end feature-rich cellphones and smart-phone/PDA devices already have card slots that accept Secure Digital cards, Multimedia Memory Cards and cards of other formats that can pack several gigabytes of flash. That storage will be needed as the cellphone becomes the converged platform that combines A/V and data storage, said Frankie Roohparvar, VP of NAND development at Micron.

Today, multiple memory types (NOR, NAND, SRAM and DRAM) are used in handsets, but over the next few years, initiatives such as Micron's Managed NAND Flash will help cellphone vendors simplify their systems to just NAND and DRAM.

For large data capacity requirements, HDDs will not be displaced, said conference roundtable participants Mike Fitzpatrick, a senior research executive at Fujitsu Computer Products, and Dave Anderson, director of strategy and planning at Seagate Technology. Only hard drives can offer the capacity to store hundreds to thousands of gigabytes, Anderson said.

By 2009, 3.5-inch HDDs will be able to deliver capacities of 2Tbytes and data transfer rates of 2Gbps by using three platters spinning at 7,200rpm. And by 2013, Anderson projects, capacities will jump to 8Tbytes, data transfer rates will increase to 5Gbps and spindle speeds will accelerate to 10,000rpm.

- Dave Bursky
EE Times

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