Computex 2017 Storage Predictions: 64 Layers For All

The NAND shortage has been like driving behind a slow car on a two-lane highway with heavy traffic in both directions. Without ample flash, companies find it difficult to produce new products in significant volume. The flash available for consumer products isn't the best the industry has to offer, so for the past year we've had to wade through some nasty stuff, only to find a couple high-quality products. Shoppers have had it even worse, spending money to purchase SSDs that are inferior to what they already own.

That's about to change but don't expect a miracle overnight.

THE CREEK Gets 64-Layers Deep

64-layer NAND, and subsequently products with the technology, will make the largest splash at Computex 2017 this week. Toshiba, Western Digital, and SanDisk have product announcements in queue, with others set to follow. Toshiba already released some information about the technology at Dell World, so the other shoe has to drop from manufacturing partner WD. This is the moment many of us have waited for.

In short, Toshiba/WD are supposed to take us out of the NAND recession by delivering third-generation 3D NAND called BiCS FLASH.

BiCS FLASH may gain praise for reducing the strain on NAND supply, but our readers will be left behind for several quarters. SanDisk has said for years that the future focus will be on 3-bit per cell NAND (or TLC). That philosophy carried over to infect Western Digital after the SanDisk acquisition. No one talks about BiCS MLC for use in the client space, even though 3D TLC is unproven technology for high-performance products (outside of Samsung).

Toshiba isn't only company ready for a 64-layer makeover. IMFT (Intel Micron Flash Technology) will push second-generation 3D NAND. We won't see end products ready to sell at Computex, but we will see demos featuring 64-layer stacks that will double the existing 32-layer die density. We expect Intel to talk about 3D Gen 2 at a keynote in the coming days, and several companies have already said they will show working samples.

IMFT 64-layer NAND isn't as far along in the release process as Toshiba 64-layer BiCS FLASH, but it's not far behind. 3D TLC Gen 2 will reduce costs by more than 30% according to Micron. Like BiCS FLASH, the increase in bit output should help increase NAND supply and allow prices to return to steady levels with predictable declines in the near future.

The largest 64-layer announcement this week will not come from Taiwan but from a few hundred miles north, in South Korea. Our sources tell us Samsung will ramp up production of 64-layer V-NAND any day now. The production numbers should start to increase as a new fab comes online for mass production. It will take a few months to impact products sold on store shelves. We expect some type of 64-layer product announcement at Flash Memory Summit this summer, or possibly sooner.

I hate to say it, but TLC will be in nearly every new consumer SSD from this point forward. It's now up to the controller design houses to make it fast enough for enthusiast use.

Controlling The Flow

On the other side of the equation, all of this new flash will require new controllers or at least new firmware. Large firmware changes are the perfect opportunity to optimize programming, add features, and increase clock speeds. Just like your CPU, processing power is a finite resource. This limits what code can run and how often. Some of the 3D NAND controller solutions we hoped would bring us throughput prosperity fell short. They are low cost, but dual-core NVMe processors will never compete with Samsung's five-core NVMe controllers.

We should see the Phison E8 on display in a few places. This is a lower cost version of the E7 with half the number of channels to the flash. Phison gave us a quick taste test at CES in January, but products based on this architecture will only come with increased BiCS FLASH availability. We noted at CES that the E8 with Toshiba 15nm planar NAND easily outperformed the Intel 600p and were told to expect even lower prices from E8 retail products from various manufacturers. Given Phison's success with PS5007-E7, we're excited to see what the follow up controller is capable of in terms of both performance and price disruption. One company we spoke with expected to show a new SSD, but later determined it was too early. We suspect it was based on the Phison E8. We were told to expect more information at Flash Memory Summit later this year.

Toshiba displayed a new client-focused NVMe SSD at Dell World. The company doesn't have a booth here at Computex, but we hope to see the XG5 and what will eventually become an OCZ RDx00 branded product for store shelves. Sadly, the drive will use 3-bit per cell NAND, but we're hopeful the new 64-layer NAND can meet the high-performance numbers set by the Samsung 960 EVO.

Silicon Motion Inc. was quiet going into Computex, but the company has several design wins with various versions of the SM2260 (NVMe) and SM2258 (AHCI) controllers. I expect to see a road map update but not a production-ready controller running. We hope the company can move away from dual-core processors and step out into the high-performance market or at least add direct-to-die features that increase sequential write performance and performance consistency.

Every company we've spoken with about SMI gives high praise for support and timeliness during the qualification cycle. One company said it could find an issue in the morning and have SMI field engineers in the office by the afternoon. SMI has grown at an incredible rate over the last two years and surely that's added to the engineering budget needed to bring exciting products to market.

Marvell is another company that went quiet before Computex, but we have an idea of what to expect after our meeting at CES in January. The company should have progressed the 88NV1140 SSD with Host Buffer Memory (HMB). The technology is the future for OEM SSDs, and if you run Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update or later you already have support. This is the next evolution in DRAM-less design, but with a plentiful performance increase from the system DRAM. It only works on the NVMe protocol. The NVMe SSD controller has a direct channel to the system memory and uses a small portion to cache the flash translation layer. Users shouldn't miss a small portion of system memory, and there is a significant performance increase over DRAM-less SSDs shipping today.

We've yet to see a consumer SSD ship with Eldora Lite, the 4-channel version of the same controller used in Plextor's M8Pe. At this point I suspect its in the same boat with with Phison E8, waiting for 64-layer NAND availability to increase before companies bring products to market. Anything based on Eldora Lite should have an attractive price point and allow the industry to reduce NVMe SSD pricing. Some analyst firms predict NVMe will surpass SATA shipments in late 2017. Eldora Lite and similar designs will make that possible.

Retail Ready Products

There are a few retail ready products we can show but with very little we can tell. Plextor will finalize the M8Se, a TLC-based version of the M8Pe enthusiast NVMe SSD. We have these drives in the office and are testing them remotely from the show. The drives will ship in three configurations with variances in cooling. The M.2 2280 version will ship as a bare SSD and with a heatsink. There is also an add-in card model with a massive heatsink. Plextor tells us to expect up to 2,450 MB/s sequential read and 1,000 MB/s sequential write speeds. You can read about the M8pe here for comparison.

Adata should have a number of new products on display. The company likes to throw out several proposed designs and then limit the number of retail products based on ability and market need. Two new NVMe products look promising for retail availability. The first adds to the XPG line designed for gamers and enthusiasts. Adata looks to ship this product with a heatsink that will match your ROG motherboard's design. The second NVMe SSD uses a Marvell Eldora controller, but we don't have any more details. It may utilize 15nm planar NAND from Toshiba; one last gasp before end of life status, but we suspect it will only ship with new 64-layer 3D NAND. Adata is one of the few companies still willing to use MLC flash. We just hope the company can urge Toshiba to manufacture enough 3D MLC to support a consumer-focused product or to keep the planar mill running for a little longer. Cross your fingers but don't hold your breath.

We should see a number of new retail SSDs from smaller storage companies and a trove of products from China. The Chinese products are always fun to look at because you never know what type of crazy is involved. There is no shortage of obscure SSDs sold in far off lands. Many are low cost, but there are a few high-performance models that we would love to see in the USA and Europe. The Galax PCI-E HOF and Tigo G5 are good examples.

Optane Is Where It's At

For the last couple of months we've known about some type of Intel Optane prosumer SSD based on the P4800X. Rumor has it the new high-performance SSD will come under the 900p name. Rob Crooke, Senior VP and GM of the Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group has a speaker role during an Intel keynote, and we hope to learn more about the drive. For the past few weeks we've seen leaked documents and images, but it's difficult to trust early leaks as reliable information. If nothing changes, the 900p will ship in several capacity sizes that start at 250GB and go up to 1.5TB!

If you want high-performance, Optane is where it's at. Optane is not based on NAND flash. It uses a phase change material that's capable of moving between 0s and 1s without a read, modify, write cycle. Essentially Intel and Micron built a next generation single-level cell flash-like memory that delivers superior performance at low queue depths.

Just as interesting, the 900p leaks show two versions in the images. One design is a take-no-prisoners black heatsink over a standard printed circuit board like the P4800X. The second leaked image shows an LED strip that could be RGB. Your high-performance workstation will look like the inside of a 1970s New York City Discotheque in no time.

Chris Ramseyer
Chris Ramseyer is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews consumer storage.
  • jn77
    So this means that 8 and 16TB 2.5 inch SSD's should hit the market in 6-12 months for consumers under the $899 price point?