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Eying solid-state drives, Seagate tries to quell fears

The largest hard-disk drive maker in the world is turning its attention for the first time to solid-state drives. Of course, it faces plenty of competition in the SSD market.

The largest hard-disk drive maker is going solid-state. Slowly.

Seagate will enter the market for solid-state drives in 2009, as it slowly embraces a technology that will, in some cases, replace its bread and butter: hard disks.

"Our history is based on rotating magnetic media. But as solid-state comes online, we're embracing this new media type," said Rich Vignes, senior manager of market development at the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company.

Seagate's first target market will be large enterprise customers. Consumer SSDs from Seagate will come later. The challenge is to convince large enterprise customers that SSDs are safe. Although hard-disk drives have endurance problems of their own, corporate customers must be convinced that a technology as new as solid-state storage is reliable.

"There isn't really a clear way of describing endurance or life expectancy of a solid-state drive. So, we're working on that as an industry standard," through JEDEC, a large standard body, Vignes said.

The presence of large players such as Seagate will allay fears, he believes. "As companies like Seagate start to demonstrate field-proven reliability and endurance in enterprise applications, we'll overcome those (solid-state drive) endurance fears."

Analysts are bullish that, with time, SSDs will catch on. "SSDs offer much better MTBFs (mean time between failures) than HDDs, although the endurance is an issue that has to be addressed," said Gregory Wong, an industry analyst at Forward Insights.

"IT managers tend to be conservative, so the qualification time will be quite long--nine months to a year, and early adopters will be Web 2.0 companies such as Google, Facebook," Wong said.

Seagate, which will enter the SSD market in 2009, says there are challenges to make SSDs palatable to large corporate customers.
Seagate, which will enter the SSD market in 2009, says there are challenges to make SSDs palatable to large corporate customers. Seagate

Seagate says it can tap into the decades of expertise it has in error correction. "Some of the skills we've picked up along the way, to deal with imperfect media, has applicability to dealing with imperfect media on NAND." All solid-state drives use NAND flash memory as the storage medium.

Fears aside, the lure of SSDs is speed--and this is what is driving Seagate into the market. "For SSDs, the play is performance, performance, performance. Did I mention performance?" Vignes said.

"SSDs have 100 times better random IOPS than HDDs," Wong said, referring to the dramatic speed advantage SSDs have over HDDs in handling input-output operations per second. Samsung has said in the past that companies such as Citibank and American Express peg server performance on IOPS.

Of course, it won't be a cakewalk for Seagate. There is plenty of competition already. Intel has started shipping SSDs for both enterprise and consumer markets. And Samsung is a leading player in the consumer market--its drives are used by Dell and Apple--and it is now stepping up efforts to snag corporate customers. On Thursday, Samsung announced that its SSDs have been selected, after extensive testing, for use in the Hewlett-Packard ProLiant blade servers.

"While for some companies, it's a new market and a new product, for us, it's an existing market, new product," Vignes said.

Seagate will get the raw material for SSDs--NAND flash memory--from others. "We're not going to make NAND. We are in discussion with all the premier NAND suppliers," Vignes said.

(Original CNET report here.)