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23 years later... and still counting

12 key SSD ideas which changed in 2014

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - - December 19, 2014
Earlier this month LinkedIn's software picked up the fact that it was the 23 year anniversary of my having founded the enterprise publisher which publishes

Although 23 is a prime number - and in that way is - I suppose - interesting for some - it wasn't a milestone I had planned to write about or mention on these pages. But as some of you picked up the bot generated posting and said nice kind things I thought that deserved some kind of human generated response from me. So here's what I said...

"Thanks for your kind and motivational comments. In the new era of SSD guides the balance of effort has moved away from - what are the new products and technologies? - To inferring - where they are - on known and unknowable intersecting roadmaps of evolutionary and disruptive change - with destinations which don't yet have words in the jargon of computer architecture."

re publishing and social networks

Everyone has their own preferences. In my case - I've become accustomed to my "social informative network" being my readers rather than any of the new fangled channels such as LinkedIn or Twitter. So this web site is where I invest most of my efforts.

But it's not always obvious what I've been working on - and a reader asked my about that recently. He said he hadn't seen anything from me in recent months about the SSD market - and asked if everything was OK.

In his case it was simply that he had recently joined a Top 10 SSD Company - whose corporate servers deny its employees access to - because their firewall filters out sites which have cartoon-like content. I won't name the company - they've had this internal problem for over a year. I guess my readership would be bigger otherwise. The marketers in that company like the mice and they like the content BTW.

After our email exchange - we spoke for about an hour about strategic changes in the enterprise SSD market. Very interesting - but for background - rather than a new article.

Apart from corporate firewall walls which block out from some desktops - another reason you might not see what I've been writing about recently is that I know you won't be interested in it yet - so I don't flag the links loudly.

When I choose to write about a new SSD topic - it's because it's interesting or important to me - and my gut tells me that it will be of interest to seriously minded readers like you at some time in the future. Sometimes it can take 5 to 10 years for new SSD related ideas to get into the mainstream market. But by writing about them early - I'm able to begin a conversation with the blue sky architects and business visionaries who will do the difficult part - which is making these things happen - and fit into a world which wasn't created for their kind.

The truth is - there isn't enough time to complete half the SSD articles I get started on. Too many interesting things going on.

From time to time - it's useful to distill the essence of all that raw random SSD chatter into something simpler. So here's another prime number. (Although the title won't stay that way for long.)

11 (or 12) key SSD ideas which changed in 2014

key SSD idea #1

in-situ SSD processing

This is about closing important gaps in the intelligence of message passing and the speed of data access between application processors and SSD controllers.

(SSD controllers which - in the vast majority of SSDs - come attached with their own offload processors or associated data movement engines.)

Traditionally SSDs have been designed to reduce the access times to data - but within the framework of commands, APIs and data structures which have been designed for applications agnostic data storage drives.

And in order to make SSDs easier to use - classic SSD controllers also perform a lot of house-keeping and data integrity related functions - in a way which is the apps processor doesn't need to know about (although it can collect stats related to endurance etc).

There is much evidence to support the idea that both applications performance and data storage efficiency can be greatly improved if the flash management and apps management processor are either the same CPU - or if they can talk to each other in a more effective way.

These improvements (which enable data handling responsibilities to be partitioned downwards to the flash or upwards to the apps host - depending on which has the best view of what is needed) have already been implemented by various SSD vendors in experimental or custom APIs.

These concepts - which first took root in large web scale server farms - have also delivered useful results in some industrial SSDs when scaled down to a single SSD.

A handful of SSD vendors have already done work in this area - notably Fusion-io (in whose non offloaded SSD controller architecture - the flash management and apps processors were the same processor).

But in 2015 and 2016 these concepts will become much more explicitly talked about.

Related SSD drive companies:- NxGn Data, LSI, Memblaze, InnoDisk

Related SSD array companies (who probably already do some degree of in-situ SSD processing) include:- Skyera, Violin

key SSD idea #2

re PCIe SSDs

This year - as part of a continuing trend - we've seen an upswing in the number of companies who offer PCIe compatible SSDs in form factors like M.2 and 2.5".

The barriers to market have been reduced by standards such as NVMe and SATA express - which by creating frameworks of software and hardware interchangeability - have minimized the risks for oems who incoprorate such SSDs into their storage and computing systems.

An important new factor for the PCIe SSD market this year was the materialization of product announcements centered around the core concept of using PCIe as an interconnection fabric between racks.

The key pioneers driving these efforts have been PLX and A3CUBE.

key SSD idea #3

random access memory doesn't have to be RAM

The idea of using flash as a new memory tier isn't new. And neither is the idea of using flash in DRAM memory slots. But in 2014 there were several developments which added weight to the usefulness of these ideas.
  • Applicable to any kind of standard flash SSD - SanDisk's ZetaScale software (described by as "one of the most significant SSD software products launched in 2014") is an API toolset which gives software designers the freedom to treat flash in a similar way to DRAM - thereby being able to rely on much higher capacities within any given monetary budget ceiling.

    Although the performance characteristics of such memory won't suit all applications - the ability to experiment and invest in a technology platform which promises to avoid lock-in to any particular SSD form factor - will encourage the development of new types of data repurposing platforms.
  • Those who may have been disappointed by the low aspirations of Diablo's 1st generation memory channel SSDs - were given a glimpse of something more akin to what they might have been wishing for - in the unveiling of an ambitious 2nd generation architecture which promised to go much further in 2015.

    The key ingredient here is a new software framework (Carbon2) with features like NanoCommit technology.

    The new software is being offered as part of developer packages which anticipate 2nd generation MCS hardware which will be fast flash DIMMs compatible with DDR4.
See also:- are you ready to rethink enterprise DRAM architecture?

key SSD idea #4

re micro tiering and micro clouds

One of the trends in computer architecture in recent years is that new software architectural concepts which deliver sustainable efficiency or management efficiencies have found it easier to get their benefits established and recognized at a large scale - as part of big web entities or cloud infrastructure.

But the lessons learned have been duly noted and reapplied to other use cases and are now finding their way into individual rack scale products too.

3 companies which stand out for their different approaches in this respect are:-

key SSD idea #5

adaptive R/W (including DSP) data integrity management in flash

2 years ago - there were only 10 companies with adaptive R/W technologies in their SSD product lines.

It was important to know who they were at the time.

Because looking ahead from the perspective of 2012 they and their licensees or acquirers were going to be among the first vendors who could leverage the economics of next generation flash.

They did this by moving away from classical flash controller technologies - which relied on anonymous industry wide characterization statistics for key flash parameters - and moving towards an adaptive model - which was able to recognize and grade different qualities of individual flash blocks (even within the same SSD).

The new adaptive DSP technology was able to choose from a wide bandolero of timing and ECC techniques instead of being dependent on a single caliber flash manage bullet.

By the middle of 2014 - adaptive R/W had become a mainstream technology - deployed by most leading enterprise SSD systems (in applicable products) - so its strategic advantage as a competitive differentiator has diminished.

Instead it has become the new "standard technology" for handling all sub 20nm planar MLC flash devices.

But it would be wrong to think of it as a uniform technology. There are significant differences in the scope, granularity and associated controller and power footprints of the many different adaptive DSP flash IP sets used in the SSD market.

key SSD idea #6

3D nand flash -may be tough enough for industrial markets

Although 3D nand flash SSDs have been shipping in the market - the current technology doesn't deliver enough efficiency and cost advantages to replace 2D in the short term. Many manufacturability and design problems remain to be solved before that is likely to happen in mainstream SSD markets.

On the other hand the raw endurance of 1st generation 3D flash seems to be 3x to 4x better than 2D at the same line geometries - according to early work done by an industrial SSD company FMJ Storage.

If these early impressions are confirmed in later volume production - this could open up the possibility of alternative markets for this type of flash.

See also:- flash memory news and articles, DWPD - endurance in industry leading enterprise SSDs

key SSD idea #7

valuing SSD companies

Acquisitions reported in 2014 seemed to indicate that SSD companies aren't worth as much as they were before.

Although there are special factors which complicate any particular analysis - as I discussed in the cases of Seagate acquiring LSI's SSD business, and SanDisk acquiring Fusion-io - it's clear that from the viewpoint of the people who matter (those with the money) an SSD company with a rich set of IP and strong market recognition in 2014 isn't generally worth as much as you might have thought if you had extrapolated from SSD company values in 2013.

Why is that?

In one way it seems perverse - given that the overall market opportunity for SSDs is now generally assumed to be much larger than it was before.

I think the key factor at work here is evidence (as reported in financial reports of some leading SSD companies) that competition is much tougher than before (due to the growing number of competitors and also the rise in the quality of such competitors).

But another key risk factor (for any encumbent SSD vendor) is vulnerability to future technology shocks - which can disrupt their business prospects.

These technology shocks don't just stem from new startup SSD companies - but can also occur as a result of macro changes in the market as users change the way they use and deploy the same type of SSDs when using different software.

key SSD idea #8

SSD pricing and business models

How much should you pay for an enterprise SSD array?

And what exactly is it that you're getting?

Although SSD vendors had always been enthusiastic about what their products and technologies could do in the first decade of enterprise flash - the language with which they bundled their pricing offers did not show the same leaps of creative imagination which they were expecting their customers to make.

But in 2014 - a small number of SSD pricing pioneers designed new enticing pricing models for their flagship flash arrays which broke away from the formulas of the past.

Behind these new pricing models was the explicit recognition that there is always a high degree of uncertainty involved in such purchases for various technical and business reasons.

This was the subject of my previous home page blog - Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing - which describes why the change is happening now and names the companies who are leading this charge.

key SSD idea #9

re rackmount SSDs

Surprisingly - given its already substantial size and gravitational business pull for SSD drive makers - there are still significant parts of the enterprise SSD market which remain uncharted and unsatisfied.

For investors and SSD startups the opportunities to grow business in under exploited high value user territories may be a source of comfort - given the potential upside.

However, for users who are still waiting for vendors to offer them the kind of products and services they really need - it's a source of frustration.

I described the reasons for these market voids in a recent article - Decloaking hidden segments in the enterprise.

key SSD idea #10

the importance of SSD software

One of the key ideas which permeates everything now in the SSD market is the importance of software to the SSD market.

In an article in January this year I said

"the SSD software market is getting ready for a world in which all enterprise data touches SSDs"

And elsewhere in the same article I also asserted

"the winners in SSD software could be as important for data infrastructure as Microsoft was for PCs, or Oracle was for databases, or Google was for search."

Apart from any confirmatory events in 2014 - when I think about to what might happen in the next few years - the overwhelming importance of SSD-centric software seems like a no brainer.

I think we will see not only new predictable generations of SSD software coming to market (which will be designed to work with currently known computer architecture models) but also entirely new data architectures and ecosystems whose very existence has been predicated on the assumption of a widely deployed SSD enhanced base infrastucture.

key SSD idea #11

re industrial SSDs - designers have refocused and chosen the viable reality of excellence in selected niches above the unfeasible goal of having the best technology roadmap for all applications

I have talked to many leading industrial SSD companies this year - and there is definitely a different mood in the air about this market and some confidence that vendors can carve sustainable business niches - having found (differing) rational strategies to cope with the chaotic changes in the general SSD market.

Those companies which still have industrial SSDs as their main product lines - when many other companies have exited this market - due to the siren pull of bigger markets (such as the call to consumer SSDs in 2006, and the big pull towards enterprise flash which was hard to resist by 2008) have survived several waves of turbulent change in their own market in the past 5 years.

At the start of that period - in 2009 - 2011 - the first wave was due to the impact of commoditization in the SSD market due to the success of the merchant controller market - and in particular SandForce controllers.

In 2011 to 2012 - the long held assumption that MLC flash would never be good enough for industrial applications was called into question by the apparent disproof of that very notion in many enterprise products. That caused customers to question - why can't we use MLC in industrial SSDs?

The practical questions for industrial SSD designers - looking at MLC were:-
  • which products? and
  • which applications?
This was a difficult balancing act for industrial business owners - because even if they solved the problem of sourcing and managing reliable enough MLC for some applications - with new controllers - the added cost of other factors in the design - due to the increased hold up time needed to clean up block management operations in MLC compared to SLC (new firmware) - and the lower capacities used in many industrial systems - meant that the cost benefits of making the transition to MLC - were not always clear cut or immediate.

Customers told me they experienced a distinct lag in the market of about 2 years - during the transition in the top 20 or so industrial suppliers from talking about the availability of MLC in their products - while others were actually doing it.

Part of that was due to competitive market differences (some companies do things faster than others) but another factor was a fundamental difference in views about whether that was the right solution for all products. (It still isn't.)

What has become clear in 2014 - is that there is now a greater degree of specialization within the industrial SSD market.

This has come about because no single company has a single set of IP which is most competitive for all form factors and interfaces.
  • when it comes to controllers - industrial SSD makers have different approaches even within their own product lines.

    The diveristy of industrial controller solutions goes beyond the simple filter of performance / form factor / power consumption and memory type - and standard versus in-house design - to encompass firmware adaptions of standard controllers, and stretches to customized firmware which can optimize system performance for known configuartions and software environments.
  • The industrial market represents a bigger total available market than ever before.

    But set against that is the need for greater specialization - and application specific optimizations.

    The result is greater market fragmentation - and more niches - rather than a small set of big broadly overlapping markets.
And industrial SSD companies are also finding new markets in the enterprise too - in hot spots in blades and small solo SSDs which are used in managing services rather than as primary storage.

key SSD idea #12

enterprise SSD designers will adopt any kind of naughty flash - once they've figured out what to do with it - and have validated the memory in less intense consumer markets

Continuing this 10 year trend - in 2014 - 3D MLC indisputably joined the roster of flash types deemed good enough to ship in enterprise SSDs - notably confirmed - if there were any doubts - by the announcement in September 2014 - that Samsung was using 3D nand in a new PCIe SSD - rated at 10 DWPD for 5 years.

Currently there is no type of mainstream nand flash which isn't being used in some type of enterprise SSD systems.

And if you hear vendors say - that their array is better because it uses so called enterprise MLC (eMLC) it really means that they don't know how to manage the flash with their own IP and have passed the buck to their memory suppliers and to their customers (who have to pay more).

In some high end enterprise market applications - there are valid reasons you might choose to pay more for your flash and have your flash array delivered in a bigger box - but in most applications - that choice is a customer preference.

Maybe you like the software which comes with the box - or it will cost you more to validate alternative suppliers. But eMLC is not - and has not been for many years - a necessity in most enterprise flash arrays.

On the other hand - if you are a worrier - rest assured that the reliability of 3D nand will need to be reassessed in future generations as the stack layers progress upwards in number. (Bad things might still happen.)

other key SSD ideas in 2014?

top SSD companies...

In the notes above I've focused on significant market wide SSD trends rather than significant SSD companies.

For a summary of 2014 as seen from an SSD company list perspective - see these articles below:-
In December 2001 - Platypus Technology announced a channel strategy for its high-performance SSD accelerator systems to "free applications from the I/O bottlenecks caused by hard drive-based storage, allowing mission critical files to run from silicon, rather than from rotating platters."
SSD market history
Hmm... it looks like you're seriously interested in SSDs. So please bookmark this page and come back again soon.
About the publisher - 23 years guiding the enterprise market

"this is the embodiment of a new wisdom - that to succeed in the enterprise SSD market today - and to achieve the ultimate efficiencies at the manufacturing level - vendors have to think like systems companies."
WDC acquires Skyera (December 15, 2014)
In 2014 I think we've been witnessing the birth of a renaissance in SSD inspired enterprise architecture - on a scale of ambition we haven't seen since the Year of SSD Revolutions in 2007.
the Top SSD Companies in Q3 2014
SSD ad - click for more info
...A winning strategy for software developers and fabric enablers - will be to create SSDcentric platforms which enable these disparate pieces to be seen (from the data utility point of view) as interoperable subsets of a bigger continuum architecture...
what's hotting up storage search? (Sept 2014)

There hasn't been a stable market template for vendors to follow from one seemingly chaotic year to the next as they encroach on new markets.
Decloaking hidden segments in the enterprise

Efficiency is no zero pain gain.

Better SSD software enabled architectures will shrink revenue in painful adoption based inflexion points - for many vendors
meet Ken - and the enterprise SSD software event horizon

"The winners in SSD software could be as important for data infrastructure as Microsoft was for PCs, or Oracle was for databases, or Google was for search."
all enterprise data will touch an SSD

It may seem like a huge leap from a 4U $290K rackmount RAM SSD (with internal flash backup and load) to hybrid DIMM (modules) but good ideas in SSD architecture have often made that kind of transition in SSD history.
flash backed DIMMs / NVDIMMs

One thing which hasn't changed since the early days of enterprise flash - is the concept of "naughty flash".
enterprise flash - a 10 year history

"The user mood is changing from - can I afford to use SSDs? to a realization that - I can't afford not to."
where does all the money go?

2014 has been the start of a new phase of creativity in the enterprise SSD market on the subject of pricing and affordability
Exiting the Astrological Age of Enterprise SSD Pricing

How adaptive is the SSD behavior to changes in itself?

The degree to which this passing of the intelligence can impact behavior in other parts of the SSD - is what I call adaptive intelligence flow symmetry.
11 Key Symmetries in SSD design

the difference between "good enough" and the "best" endurance architecture schemes can still be 2x, 3x or 100x - even when using the same memory.
SSD endurance - the forever war - now in 3D

"...Application-unaware design of memory controllers, and in particular memory scheduling algorithms, leads to uncontrolled interference of applications in the memory system" - said Onur Mutlu, Carnegie Mellon University.
Are you ready to rethink RAM?

The new economics of SSD storage took the CPU designers and OS software developers completely by surprise.

The technology roadmaps didn't come from the usual places.

And they changed too fast for the old style processor, storage and server vendors to keep up.
the New Business Case for SSD ASAPs

How do I explain the significance of the SSD market to someone with no technical background?
historic perspectives - on the SSD market

You need compatibilities and similarities to create a new data storage ecosystem - but you need differences and competitors to make it a true market
Storage ORGs - list of trade associations

"Bottlenecks in the pure SSD datacenter will be much more serious than in the HDD world - because responding slowly will be equivalent to transaction failure."
will SSDs end my bottlenecks?

Adaptive flash care management & DSP IP in flash SSD controllers and firmware.
What is it? Who does it? and why?

Today - if you're in a big company in a traditional market - and hoping to do something equally big in the SSD market - then $1 billion may not be enough - but $5 billion may be too much.
VCs & SSDs

Why can't SSD's true believers agree on a single shared vision?
the SSD Heresies

"A critical test of whether you really understand the dynamics of a complex market like enterprise SSDs - is whether you can predict what rational buyers might do when offered new product options at the extreme limits of - for example - price."
Boundaries Analysis in SSD Market Forecasting

"A new generation of enterprise SSD rackmounts is breaking all the rules which previously constrained price, performance and reliability."
exciting new directions in rackmount SSDs

Usable versus Raw flash capacity - what you see isn't what you get.
SSD capacity - the iceberg syndrome

"...the SSD market will be bigger in revenue than the hard drive market ever was."
How will hard drives fare in an SSD world?

"You'd think... someone should know all the answers by now. "
what do enterprise SSD users want?

Even a modest amount of drive writes per day can render modern day MLC flash incapable of retaining data for long in the unpowered state - depending on the temperature in the rack where those writes took place.

This effectively means that the flash inside the SSD is no longer "non volatile".
Aspects of DWPD - October 23, 2014

Sorry - this isn't a magic formula which resolves neatly into 5 easy bullet points
SSD education

SSD ad - click for more info

These intriguing questions will be answered much later when the patents are applied for.
my flash controller scheme is 100x better than yours

The simple idea - that one new SSD thing can replace one old SSD thing - is rarely as simple as the advocates of the new thing say.
PCIe SSDs versus memory channel SSDs