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Server flash drives welcome MLC

Posted: 15 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:flash server? drive flash? MLC SF-1500? cell multilevel?

SandForce Inc. aims to be the first company with a controller supporting multilevel cell (MLC) flash chips for solid-state drives used in servers. By using MLC chips, the SF-1500 paves the way to lower cost and higher density drives server makers want.

To date flash drives for servers have used single-level cell flash chips. That's because the endurance and reliability for MLC chips have generally not been up to the requirements of servers.

SandForce claims it has solved those issues with a set of new algorithms based on 20 patents pending. They increase flash chip endurance as much as 80-fold by optimizing the number of write operations on the flash chips. The controllers also use improved error correction code, wear-leveling and a form of RAID technology applied to the flash chips.

The algorithms also help provide equivalent read and write performance, something unusual for flash drives. The SF-1500 can handle sequential read or write operations at 250MBps maximum on 128Kbyte blocks. It performs random reads or writes at 30,000 I/O operations per second.

The controller sports a Mean Time Between Failure of 10 million hours and AES-128 encryption. It consumes 625mW on average and 1.5W max.

The company will also sell a version of its controller, the SF-1200, with lower performance and power consumption aimed at notebooks.

Either controller supports up to 16 flash chips of up to 32Mbits in density. They can be used to build 1.8-inch or 2.5-inch drives of up to 512Gbytes in density.

The chips use a 3Gbit/s serial ATA interface and will be in production this fall. Versions with 6Gbit/s SATA and SAS interfaces are in the works.

The company would not disclose details of its 90nm chip design except to say it uses a Tensilica-derived supervisory core and is made at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

The company enters a crowded market, but several observers were upbeat on the company's technology.

'Disruptive' innovations
Storage Strategies Now, an analyst firm, said the chips could slash the cost of server flash drives by two-thirds. That's because most flash drives hide the reliability and endurance issues by supplying hidden banks of as much as 14Gbytes memory for every 50Gbytes of usable memory, the company said.

"These innovations can be truly disruptive and will accelerate the adoption of solid state technologies across the data center," said Mike Desens, VP for system design at IBM in a press statement from SandForce.

"Products like the SF-1000 Family can be major catalysts for increasing SSD adoption in the enterprise," said Jeff Janukowicz, research manager for storage chips at International Data Corp., in the press statement.

"We are currently tracking more than 75 solid-state drive OEMs," said Janukowicz in an e-mail exchange. Many including Intel, Samsung and STEC use internally developed controllers or FPGAs; however, there is also a host of merchant controller suppliers including established companies such as LSI Corp. and Marvell.

IDC said just 44,000 server-class flash drives were shipped last year. However, the research firm said that the market is growing by as much as 227 percent over the next five years. SandForce estimates as many as ten million server-class flash drives could ship by 2012.

SandForce was founded by CEO Alex Naqvi, former CEO of startup Luminous Networks, and its chief technology officer, Radoslav Danilak, a former Nvidia graphics processor designer who has filed more than 80 patents.

C.S. Park, former CEO at hard-drive maker Maxtor and former chief executive at Hynix is a member of the SandForce board.

The company has taken in a total of more than $20 million in two venture rounds to date. "We can get to revenue based on the funding we have," said Thad Omura, VP of marketing for the startup.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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