Want a new flash memory card format?

A standards group hopes to develop a memory card format called UFS. It'll face some obstacles getting to market, but may succeed embedded in mobile phones.

Those who lived through the days of xD card vs. Memory Stick vs. CompactFlash vs. Secure Digital may think people need a new flash memory card format like we need a hole in our heads. Who, after all, has a burning desire to upgrade the 9-in-1 flash card reader to a 10-in-1 model?

An established industry standards group, JEDEC, has a new format it hopes will catch on, though.

The group already took over standardization of the MultiMediaCard specification that's chiefly relevant today hidden away inaccessibly in its embedded form, EMMC, that's used under the covers of various devices.

At the CES show last week, JEDEC members worked to build industry support for a faster successor called Universal Flash Storage (UFS). This specification "has been designed to be the most advanced specification for flash memory-based storage in mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers," the group said, adding that it expects to publish a specification for it in the first quarter of 2011.

Lexar's first SDXC memory cards, due to ship this quarter, include a $500 64GB and $700 128GB model.
SD under threat? After coming out on top in the flash memory card format wars, an industry standards group hopes to create a new rival called UFS. Lexar Media

UFS is hitting the ground running, too, with some major allies promoting, endorsing, and using the technology.

Memory chipmaker Micron Technology gushed at the "revolutionary improvement" and pledged to support it for phone designs. Phone maker Nokia praised it as an "essential open standard." Mobile-phone chipmaker Qualcomm pledged to support it, memory powerhouse Samsung will ship products using it, and Toshiba praised its balance of high performance and lower power consumption.

So what's it got going for it? First, UFS recycles the well-supported SATA interface used to connect hard drives to attach hard drives and solid-state flash drives to computers, giving a major speed boost over its MMC predecessors. Initially, it's designed to transfer data at rates of 300 megabytes per second--triple that of EMMC--and the group plans to double that with a later improvement.

Second, it's designed to be easy on the batteries. "UFS will offer the promise for significant reductions in device power consumption due to a low active power level and a near-zero idle power level," JEDEC said. In other words, it doesn't suck the juice out of your battery when your phone isn't being used.

Sounds great. There's just one problem: SD.

The Secure Digital flash card format is very widely used, with SD slots showing up in everything from cameras to laptops to tablets and cards available at countless retail outlets. And SD has a healthy road map, reaching very large capacities of 2 terabytes in its SDXC incarnation and set to reach data transfer speeds of 300MBps next year with its Ultra High Speed II (UHS-II) interface finalized last week.

But futures are hard to predict. JEDEC took over the UFS standardization in 2007 from its previous manager, the MultiMedia Card Association. JEDEC said:

At the time when the evaluation for UFS was done it was noted that the SD standard was popular, but it was also reaching the end of the road with the version available for designs. Therefore there were two options; of which first was to continue using mass memory architecture based on memory card and improve it or do a new architecture, which meets all mass memory needs in the mobile environment.

SD backers, though, are confident in their technology.

"The market and consumers have coalesced around the proven and easy-to-use SD standard," SD Association spokesman Kevin Schader said. "The SD Association's commitment to innovation of new specifications will keep it well positioned to meet future market needs and be the common interface for memory cards, embedded, and I/O [input-output]."

JEDEC believes UFS has utility SD is missing. First on the list is its availability in an embedded form--and indeed that's likely to be a strong selling point. Another is use of the SATA standard, which eases design difficulties and enables features such as "command queuing" that can make multiple requests to read and write data more efficient. Last is power efficiency.

UFS interfaces "are designed from the ground up to be power efficient for mobile applications and enable efficient transition between the active and power save modes," JEDEC said, and the mobile device's processor doesn't need to be involved much overseeing UFS.

JEDEC explicitly is defining UFS as an external card technology as well as one that's embedded. But Michael Yang, an iSuppli analyst, believes the embedded angle is the only place to bet on the technology for now.

"UFS is first and foremost the next-generation EMMC. And that is an embedded product," Yang said.

And Christopher Chute, an IDC analyst, said UFS isn't likely to threaten SD's near lock on the camera market. "Given that most of these vendors are referencing tablets and mobile devices, i.e. phones, I would tend to think that the camera market is more of a secondary concern, especially as the camera market is viewed as a mature entity with limited growth potential," he said.

Whatever its true ambitions, the JEDEC Solid State Technology Association has significant clout. It was founded in 1958 as the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council, itself an evolution of the Joint Electron Tube Engineering Council from 1944. Its board members come from industry powers including IBM, AMD, Intel, Micron, Texas Instruments, Nokia, Oracle, Samsung, Spansion, NXP Semiconductor, and Agilent.

To add some UFS-specific help and encouragement to the tech industry, some JEDEC members also have formed the Universal Flash Storage Association (UFSA) as well.

It seems like the group will have some success in the embedded flash memory market. But if the popularity of SD card slots is anything to judge by, don't be surprised to see UFS stay hidden under the covers.

 

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