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Intel, Micron moves to reclaim NAND process lead

Posted: 29 Dec 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NAND process? SSD? solid-state drive?

Intel Corp. and Micron Technology Inc. are looking to regain the lead in the NAND process technology race.

During a conference call Dec. 22, Micron said that it will be "shortly" sampling a 2xnm NAND device. It did not specify the exact node, but some expect the company will disclose more details in early 2010.

Micron and its NAND partner, Intel, are expected to ramp a 2xnm NAND device in 2010. With the product, Intel and Micron could leapfrog Samsung and Toshiba. Intel and Micron are partners in a joint NAND venture dubbed IM Flash Technologies LLC.

Both Intel and Micron are also selling solid-state disk (SSD) products, based on NAND. Intel has made inroads in the SSD market, while Micron is struggling in the arena, analysts said.

Memory chip vendor Micron recorded its first profit in three years during the period ended Dec. 3, topping Wall Street's expectations with sales of $1.74 billion, the company said Dec. 22.

The company's NAND business grew 21 percent in the quarter, while DRAM jumped 50 percent in the period. In fact, Micron is on allocation for select products, reportedly including DDR3 SDRAMs.

And for some time, the Intel-Micron duo had the lead in the NAND process race. The companies have been shipping product based on a 34nm process.

Then, in April, Japan's Toshiba Corp. grabbed the lead. The company has been accelerating the ramp of its NAND flash memory products, based on its long-awaited, 32nm process technology.

In August, the 3bit-per-cell (x3) NAND race began to heat up, as Intel and Micron officially announced their initial offering in the arena. The x3, multi-level cell (MLC) NAND technology is based on a 34nm process.

Earlier this month, South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. said it has begun volume production of 3bit, MLC NAND flash chips using a 30nm manufacturing process technology. The chips are a 4-Gbit array with 3bits per memory cell providing a memory capacity of 32Gbit.

Now, Intel and Micron have a 2xnm device in the works. Still, Samsung remains the market share leader in NAND, but Toshiba is gaining ground, according to the new Q3 rankings from iSuppli Corp. The real head scratcher is Intel, which continues to trail in the rankings.

Meanwhile, the overall NAND market is recovering after a bad downturn. "What a difference a year makes," said Joseph Unsworth, an analyst with Gartner, in a report. "After a disastrous 2008, NAND vendors were in despair. But in 2009 rationalism ensued and industry balance was forced into repair. With demand staying robust through most of 2009, vendors' hopes grew. As supply constraints remain, 2010 looks quite strong, as does 2011, too."

Prices are better as well. "NAND contract pricing in early December was down slightly across most densities, but compared with December 2008, prices for MLC parts have roughly doubled, and prices for SLC parts have stayed relatively flat. The current price for a 16Gbit MLC part is about $4.68, which compares with $2.25 for the same part a year ago," he said.

"Not only does this show the disastrous conditions the NAND vendors faced a year ago, but also the severity of the adjustments that were made to rectify the oversupply problem," he said.

"The outlook for the remainder of December is that pricing is likely to remain soft, but given optimism during recent channel checks, it appears that prices will remain stable leading into 2010 before sliding again in the second quarter. The year 2010 will be a strong one for NAND vendors with revenue growth of more than 20 percent," he said.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times

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