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The flash dance extends itself

From thumb drive to SSD

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Those billion of USB thumb drives in their lipstick-sized cases are going to be joined by more serious storage gear as flash memory manufacturers establish a new storage form-factor. Flash memory is now available with 100,000 read/write cycle durability and chip capacity is such that 64GB flash memory sold state disks (SSD) can be manufactured at at a reasonable price.

This is a minor revolution that will slowly but surely put paid to micro-hard drives, ones with 1-inch and, subsequently, 1.8-inch form factors. Toshiba has already withdrawn from any further 1-inch micro-drive developments. USB thumb dive suppliers are beginning to move into SSD supply and one such is Ritek.

Ritek is a far eastern firm with a big presence in the CD-R market, and manufactures DVD, Blu-ray and HD-DVD optical media as well. In fact it is the largest manufacturer of optical storage media in the world. It owns the Traxdata brand, which has a significant presence in mainland Europe, and is introducing a novel type of thumb drive, the Y-shaped Yego, which has two USB ports as well as a 128MB to 4GB storage capacity. It functions as a mini-USB hub and standard USB storage device at the same time.

Ritek already has a NAND-based RiDATA 32GB SSD in 1.8 and 2.5-inch formats. A 64GB SSD is due in calendar Q3 of this year and should have a serial ATA (SATA) interface. It's destined for notebook computers suffering from Windows XP bloat-affected slow boot times and Windows Vista extra bloat-affected slow boot times, and also, of course, for faster general I/O and lower battery drain than standard spinning hard drives.

Optical supplier and tape media manufacturer and supplier Imation is also in the thumb drive business and has moved into the removable hard drive business with its Odyssey and Ulysses products. It may well enter the flash-based SSD business too.

Flash-based SSDs will establish a storage market sector between hard drives and DRAM-based SSDs, such as Texas Memory Systems' RamSan. It will not be as fast as DRAM-based SSDS nor as expensive. In fact, it should be generally affordable.

The first wave of these flash SSDs will be focused on notebook computer manufacturers. Dell, for example, has already announced a flash-based Latitude, following Sony's lead.

The 64GB capacity will soon give way to 128GB, probably some time in 2008, which will widen the applicability of flash SSDs to general notebook computer use. At that time we might, hopefully, see the advent of retro-fit flash SSDs. Existing notebook computers would then be able to get a boot and general I/O speed boost and have a significant extension in their battery life. It sounds too good to be true.

Let's hope that the intense competition between flash SSD suppliers like Ritek and Samsung and the new Intel and STM organisation rapidly focuses on this market.

The next wave will be to add flash SSDs to desktop and server computers, to break out of the notebook niche. That means equivalent capacity to 2.5-inch hard drives and I think we're talking about 256GB product in the 2009/2010 timeframe. At that time the 1.8-inch hard drive business will be under severe pressure from flash SSDs.

All this pre-supposes that the flash read/write cycle limitations have been proven to have been moved out to the 100,000+ cycle area by real life use and not just in MTTF calculations.

One last point. The rise of flash SSD competition wold make DRAM-based SSDs more affordable too. It could be good news all round and not just a brief flash in the pan at all.


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