Cost savings drive adoption of Flash harddrives

Chicago (IL) - Solid-state disk drives, short SSDs, have been around for a while and tend to be the ultimate solution when mass storage needs to be extremely fast and durable. Typically, these drives are equipped with loads of expensive Flash memory chips, which prevented the technology to penetrate a mass market so far. The technology is making its way down the adopter pyramid, but today, the technology often is chosen for industry applications because of - believe it or not - cost reasons.

Users, who enjoy squeezing every bit of performance hidden in hardware out of their PC, are very likely to stumble across the idea of a SSD once in a while. But even when money is not so much an issue, a $150 per-GByte price tag of such drives isn't very convincing today. But the SSD market is growing, shown by the increasing number of product announcements and increasing numbers of companies in this segment.

One of the leading firms in developing SSDs is Adtron, a company that was founded in 1985 and also builds in-chassis storage blades and removable media drives. Alan Fitzgerald, president and chief technology officer of the company, told TG Daily that most of today's SSDs are sold into industry, government and military applications. "You see many SSDs today appear in a wide variety of scenarios that includes for example computers, locomotives or surveillance systems. We have crossed a certain threshold of price and usability, where Flash drives make sense," he said.

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Alan Fitzgerald

The key usability of SSDs typically is performance and durability. According to Fitzgerald, especially a higher durability and reliability of Flash drives leads the industry to rethink certain applications and replace traditional harddrives with a SSD. But as so often, cost turns out to be the hidden, real advantage: "You can save money by spending more upfront," Fitzgerald says. "Yes performance has a price," he said. "But Flash drives enable you to 'eliminate or enhance'. Either, you can bring the revenue per system up or you can decrease the number of total systems you need."

Reliability is not a talent at which Flash drives typically expected excel. The number of write cycles of Flash memory is rated a 1 million, before the chip will fail. An enterprise harddrive, in comparison, often offers a meantime before failure of 1 million hours - or 114 years. Fitzgerald however claims that, under continuous and real life operation, a Flash disk will surpass the reliability of a harddrive. "Our internal tests showed that harddrives are not really built to sustain a demanding long-term operation. Harddrives in our labs failed after 6 months of operation, while Flash disks ran four five years before a single chip failed."

Besides reliability, the military sector is one of the very few customers that explicitly look for the performance of Flash drives. Such SSDs are especially used in aircraft for applications such as mapping and target acquisition. "Flash drives achieve 10 times the sustained performance of a harddrive in this area," Fitzgerald said.

Interest in SSDs continues to increase across the industry because of decreasing prices of Flash memory. Currently, the capacity of Flash tends to increase by 35 percent per year, while prices drop by at least the same speed. The enormous demand of consumer Flash cards in the consumer space directly impacts the pricing of industrial Flash drives at this time, but Fitzgerald believes that SSDS eventually will be cheap enough to enter the enthusiast and performance computing arena.

"We could see Flash disks to be used in mobile computers and high-performance desktops in the near future," he said. An 8 GByte Flash drive currently sells for about $1200 and he expects a 16 GByte version to come down to about $1000 in 2006. While this storage capacity may be enough to be the only mass storage device in the smallest notebook computers, desktops will always need a regular, cheaper harddrive for mass storage, Fitzgerald believes. However, using a Flash drive as a boot drive and for storing temporary content could significantly accelerate the performance of a desktop: "You will not see instant-on computers for some time, but a boot time of about 15 seconds is very realistic," he said.

For the mass market, Fitzgerald said that the idea of a hybrid harddrive - a traditional harddrive that integrates Flash as supporting memory - is "very interesting." Sometime in the future we will make a decision to build a hybrid harddrive or not. But I would say that it is not very unlikely that we will be considering to develop such a drive," he said.

Samsung currently is the only manufacturer that demonstrated a hybrid harddrive. First shown in April of this year, Samsung claims, that hybrid drives can extend the battery running time in a notebook by about 10 percent while achieving a higher read/write performance at the same time.

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