Electronic Design

Mainstream Magnetic Storage Gets The Boot

Picture two CEOs sitting next to one another on an airplane—in first class, of course. Both power up their laptops with the same version of Microsoft Windows at the same time. Yet one CEO is up and running in seconds, while the other sits and ponders the nature of the universe, waiting several minutes to complete the “booting ritual.”

Did one CEO only appear to “cold” boot while really recovering from standby mode? Nope. Instead, the first CEO booted using an all-solid-state NAND flash-based hard drive while the second CEO booted via a traditional magnetic hard drive. Now let’s rewind a bit and see how this scenario will come to pass in 2007.

Over the past couple of years, magnetic storage-based devices (i.e. Apple’s iPod mini) have been discontinued in favor of their NAND flash counterparts (i.e. the iPod nano). As the price of flash continues to drop and densities increase over the coming year, this trend will parlay into other devices. Thus, you’ll start to see flash available in a host of new applications.

One such application is in hard-disk drives (HDDs) for laptop and desktop PCs. The PC market will experience the beginnings of a large shakeup this year as the industry moves toward hybrid magnetic/NAND flash drives (e.g., those powered with Intel’s Robson cache technology), as well as all-solid-state flash-based drives.

This is not to say that magnetic storage will become obsolete in PCs any time soon. It’s just that the role magnetic storage plays in a PC will shift to media-based storage. In fact, keep your eye on a technology that has been around for quite some time, yet is finally making some inroads this year: perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR). PMR devices will provide up to 10 times the areal density of their traditional longitudinal counterparts.

Ready Or Not, Here Comes Vista
One of the main driving factors of the shakeup is the debut of Microsoft Windows Vista at the end of this month, which has added two technologies that use flash—ReadyDrive and ReadyBoost. These additions improve system performance by caching commonly used programs and data in flash.

A flash-based caching layer can boost program execution times by up to 300%. You also can expect laptop battery life to last between 5 and 30 minutes longer. You can also expect significant improvements (up to 50%) in system boot time, and recovery from standby or hibernation states.

In addition, Vista will use an artificial-intelligence-based technology called SuperFetch. It analyzes usage patterns that help to decide the best content to keep readily available in flash memory. And because flash isn’t susceptible to the mechanical failures that are expected in magnetic drives, they’re about five times more reliable.

Samsung, which sells both magnetic- and flash-based HDDs, expects about 1% of the HDDs sold next year to be all solid state. The company also believes NAND flash caching will become ubiquitous in all PCs by the end of 2008.

“We see continuing strength for NAND flash in 2007 and are committed to helping expand its markets,” said Steve Weinger, Flash Marketing Manager of Samsung Semiconductor. “There is solid demand for NAND flash in the DSC market and new card demand being driven by smart phones. MP3 integration in many cell phones will further stimulate the NAND flash market and the MP3 market itself still offers room to grow.”

Weinger continues “We are also very enthusiastic about how flash will penetrate the PC sector in several ways such as its use in hybrid drives and other new caching schemes. Windows Vista will considerably stimulate the movement of flash into the PC arena. And, in a few years, SSDs will become a cost-efficient alternative to magnetic storage for the mass consumer market. It already makes sense for business applications where 32 GB is more than enough for the typical corporate user.”

Samsung has 16- and 32-Gbyte models of all-solid-state drives available now.

A Shift In Business Strategies
You may already work for a company that requires you to store all company data on a server. But even if you don’t, chances are your company will implement this requirement sooner rather than later.

Businesses certainly aren’t going to give a hoot if you whine about not having an extra 20 Gbytes of storage for your MP3 and video downloads. The underlying implication is that the HDDs on business PCs soon will only be used for applications, and 16 Gbytes will be considered enough storage for the average business user. Meanwhile, 32 Gbytes will satisfy most “power” users.

According to iSuppli, the NAND flash market is going to get a 19% boost in revenues in 2007 while the price will drop roughly 53% from 2006. From 2008 to 2010, expect the double-digit revenue growth to continue while the price continues to fall about 50% per year.

Overall, expect the market to grow at an average of 17% per year with a 51% price drop per year. Shrinking process technology, stacked die configurations, and the technology enabling multiple bits per cell instead of one are driving these trends.

For an in depth look at the flash market and a breakdown of the various types of flash technology, see Flash Memory--Moving From Great Expectations to New Differentiation.

NAND In More Places
NAND will continue to find its way into more applications where other types of memory traditionally dominated. For example, cell phones will add more and more flash as they continue to become all-in-one devices that include a camera, camcorder, PDA, GPS, and so on.

“In addition to very rapid market growth and fast declines in motherboard prices, NAND flash continues to evolve and align specific functionality with the wide range of established and emerging flash applications,” says Lane Mason, memory market analyst, Denali Software.

“Unlike DRAMs, which all have marched lock-step to the PC-dictated roadmap, NAND serves many masters and applications, which all drive the features and technology in slightly different directions,” says Mason. “This will be the most exciting and opportunity-laden memory market for several years, until prices cease their rapid declines and the various flavors of NAND are identified and features stabilized.”

As the saying goes, if you can’t beat em, join ’em. So the next time I see you on an airplane, I know which hard drive I’ll be using in my laptop.

TAGS: Intel
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