Intel thinks big with solid-state drives
Production is imminent for high-capacity solid-state drives ranging up 160GB. Is this the beginning of the end for hard-drive dominance?
SAN FRANCISCO--Intel will finally enter the high-capacity solid-state drive business with the goal of replacing hard-disk drives in both consumer and corporate markets.
This comes 20 years after Intel introduced its first flash memory--a 256KB flash chip in 1988. The world's largest chipmaker is announcing the line of solid-state drives at the Intel Developer Forum here.
The presence of Intel will intensify an already intensely competitive market. "Intel's entry into the SSD market has been expected for a while and although a bit delayed, represents the start of what we expect to be a very competitive market," said Avi Cohen, managing partner at Avian Securities.
Initially, Intel will have 80GB and 160GB solid-state drives based on multilevel cell (MLC) technology for the consumer and notebook markets, and 32GB and 64GB drives based on single-level cell (SLC) for the enterprise market. In 2009, Intel expects to have MLC drives with capacities up to 320GB.
MLC allows drive makers to build higher-capacity drives at lower cost but is not as fast as SLC nor inherently as reliable. Though SLC solid-state drives are used currently in some ultralight laptops, in most cases they will be replaced by MLC drives in future laptop models.
"The new generation of MLC-based products are an improvement over the initial SSD offerings which had a host of issues," Cohen said. "SSDs are ideally suited for the netbook category and will eventually replace (high-performance) hard-disk drives in the enterprise segment."
But most notebooks will continue to use hard-disk drives, Cohen said. "We expect mainstream notebooks to continue to utilize HDDs for the foreseeable future."
The "E" identifier on Intel solid-state drives will indicate "extreme" for SLC drives, and "M" will be associated with mainstream MLC units.
"The MLC will go into production in the next 30 days and the SLC in the next 90 days," said Troy Winslow, marketing manager for the NAND Products Group at Intel.
Drives will come in 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch sizes and be based on the Serial-ATA (SATA) II interface. Generally, ultralight notebooks such as the MacBook Air, ThinkPad X300, and the just-introduced HP 2530p use 1.8-inch drives, while corporate customers use the 2.5-inch size in server environments.
Intel says it has put a lot effort into making its solid-state drives reliable. "Right now 95 percent of the flash (memory) consumption is in consumer electronics devices. Storing photos, showing videos. (If) your card fails, you throw it away," Winslow said. Flash card makers have paid little attention to reliability, according to Winslow.
Getting the "intelligent design" right so data is secure is one reason for Intel's delayed entry into the market. "That's why we weren't first to market. It's tough," Winslow said.
Winslow thinks Intel solid-state drives are reliable enough now to have a good shot at replacing high-performance hard-disk drives in large server installations. "We know the data is critical. We know enterprise is going to thrash these drives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for years," he said. "Bottom line is (enterprise users) can't count on hard drives. You can't predict their failure. By being solid-state there is that predictive ability. You can predict when it's going to wear out, when it's going to fail."
Fusion-io Chief Technology Officer David Flynn sees solid-state drives as a very disruptive force in hard-disk-drive-centric enterprise storage market. "This player is good at video on demand, that guy's good at IOPS (input/output operations per second) for database...It's a highly fractured market," Flynn said. "The differentiation between storage infrastructure will disappear as soon as you can put enough performance and capacity right inside the server."
Flynn echoed Intel's prediction that hard-disk drives will ultimately be relegated to the role that tape drives play today: "Hard disks will become the new tape (drive)...hard disks will store data...(SSDs) will house active data...very big difference...your active data tier will become a silicon tier."