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Intel set to take leap in solid-state drives

Company is planning to bring out high-capacity solid-state drives to compete with SanDisk, Toshiba, and Samsung.

Intel doesn't enter markets gently. Its new high-capacity solid-state drives (SSDs) are expected to jolt a market currently dominated by Samsung, Toshiba, and SanDisk.

Intel's current offering, the Z-P140 PATA solid state drive
Intel's current offering: the Z-P140 PATA solid-state drive. Intel Corp.

At the moment, Intel offers small-capacity chip-level (what are called Thin Small Outline Packages or TSOPs) technology that provides end-product sizes ranging up to 16GB. But this modest line of products will get a big boost in the second quarter when Intel offers 1.8- and 2.5-inch SSDs ranging from 80GB to 160GB in capacity, said Troy Winslow, marketing manager for the NAND Products Group at Intel. Intel's new SSDs will compete with Samsung, for example, which is slated to bring out a 128GB SSD in the third quarter.

With new competition, drive speeds will jump. Currently, the fastest SSDs from companies like Samsung approach 100MB/second for reading data. "What I can tell you is ours is much better than that," Winslow said. Hard drives typically read data at about half this speed.

"We will be supplementing our product line with a SATA offering," he said. Serial ATA, or SATA, is an interface used in high-performance hard disk drives. Intel's products will be based on the SATA II specification that offers speeds of 3 gigabits (Gb) per second. Samsung is now shipping 64GB SSDs to Dell using the same technology.

"When Intel launches its...products, you'll see that not all SSDs are created equal," Winslow said. "The way the SSDs are architected, the way the controller and firmware operates makes a huge difference," he said, referring to the chip (controller) that manages the SSD and software (firmware) that the controller uses.

Intel believes 2008 is the year of the SSD. (See SSD primer below.) "For the first time, flash is going into the compute environment. In the last nine years or so when it experienced all of its growth, this has been in digital cameras and USB keys," Winslow said. But now flash memory, in the form of SSDs, will be used as the main storage device in PCs. "When you're putting all your critical applications and data into notebook or server (SSDs), who knows those markets better than the manufacturer that's supplying the world with CPUs," Winslow added.

While the latter statement seems like typical marketing spin, it's more than just spin in Intel's case. The largest chipmaker in the world is in a competitive position because it already supplies many of a PC's core components including the processor, chipset, communications silicon, and in some cases, the graphics processor. Add the main storage device to the mix, and--with the exception of an optical drive and screen--that's all the core component in a notebook PC.

But to be competitive with hard drives, SSD prices have to come down--a lot. In many cases, upgrading from a hard drive to an SSD in a notebook can mean paying an extra $1,000. Intel, like Samsung and Toshiba, sees steep declines in cost in the next two years. "Price declines are historically 40 percent per year," Winslow said. "And in 2009, a 50 percent reduction, then again in 2010."

Also, like Samsung, Intel sees SSDs playing a role in the server market as a "performance accelerator." Winslow said that Intel recently did a video-on-demand demonstration where it streamed 4,000 videos simultaneously. Just to do the streaming (not to store the video), it took 62 15,000 RPM (very high-performance) hard drives, he said. "We were able to replace those 62 hard drives with 10 SATA (SSD) technology drives," he said.

Finally, Winslow addressed the price collapse in the flash market in general--a topic that generated a lot of press after the Intel analyst meeting on Wednesday. "A majority of flash is being sold in very cyclical consumer electronics devices. Q1 and Q2 are soft quarters," he said. On top of this, suppliers continue to shrink manufacturing process technologies, leading to more capacity at lower cost, he said.

SSD Primer, Part 1: SSDs are based on flash memory chip technology and have no moving parts. Hard-disk drives (HDDs), in contrast, use read-write heads that hover over spinning platters to access and record data. With no moving parts, SSDs avoid both the risk of mechanical failure and the mechanical delays of HDDs. Therefore, SSDs are generally faster and more reliable. The catch is the cost: SSDs are currently much more expensive than HDDs.

SSD Primer, Part 2: Intel will be shipping in the second quarter a Multi-Level Cell or MLC solid-state drive. This is a more sophisticated technology than current Single-Level Cell or SLC. The advantage is larger capacity since MLC uses multiple levels per cell to allow more bits to be stored. The disadvantage is more complexity which can result in lower performance. "Inherently, MLC is slower and inherently fewer write cycling endurance," Winslow said. Intel, however, has technology that will get around these problems, he said.

Intel Flash/SSD capacity: Intel and Micron have a joint venture called IM Flash Technologies. Both companies are currently making flash on a 50-nanometer process with plans to move to 40nm later this year. There are three NAND flash fabrication plants and one more currently being built in Singapore. The Intel-Micron venture provides funding for the development of silicon technology and the capacity to produce that silicon, according to Winslow. But marketing and end-product decisions are "absolutely separate," he said.