Loser: Too Little, Too Soon

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    Most analysts are nonplussed. DoesSamsung really understand the demo-graphics and the price threshold that peopleare willing to pay for these products? asksCeleste Crystal, a senior research analystwith IDCs Semiconductors Group, head-quartered in Framingham, Mass.

    While flash memory is ubiquitous thesedays in devices using 4 GB and less, thereare several compelling reasons that you dontfind it in the hard-drive bays of PCs, note-books, subnotebooks, or tablet computers.For example, flash-based solid-state disks(SSDs) have astronomically high prices andabsurdly low capacities relative to conventional magnetic harddrives. SSDs cost 60 to 70 times as much as hard-disk drives, which boast capacities and read/writespeeds that flash makers like Samsung arent goingto approach for at least another three years, industry observers say.

    Last May, Seoul, South Koreabased Samsung ElectronicsCo., the worlds No. 1 NAND flash vendor, announced NANDflashbased SSDs ranging in capacity from 4 to 32 GB aimed atnotebook, subnotebook, and tablet computers [see sidebar, FlashPoints]. The flash-based drives that Samsung began showingcustomers last August provide 16 GB in a package designed to godirectly into a laptop hard-drive bay. Its worth noting that evencheap laptops are now shipping with 40-GB hard drives, and that80-GB hard drives are fast becoming the standard, according toGordon F. Hughes, associate director, Center for MagneticRecording Research, University of California, San Diego.

    So youve got to admire the chutzpah of Chang-Gyu Hwang,Samsungs Semiconductor Business Division CEO, who on12 September 2005 essentially declared the end of the magnetichard drive. NAND flash will eventually replace other storagemedia, especially those used in mobile products, creating a flashrush, as NAND continues to register an unprecedented surge in

    demand as the backbone of the mobile electronics era, Hwangasserted at a press conference at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul.

    Hwangs prediction is the latest in a long historyof forecasts of the imminent demise of the hard-

    disk drive.Samsung is out thumping their chest say-

    ingwere going to bury disk drives, says LarrySwezey, deputy general manager of HitachiLtd.s Mobile Hard Drive Business, whose1-inch drive was spurned by AppleComputer Inc. in favor of SamsungsNAND flash for the iPod Nano personalmusic player. Samsung says that it will ship

    32-GB SSDs next year. What they dont men-tion, adds Swezey, is how much the 32 GB will

    costanywhere from US $2200 to $5000 today,depending on the specific application.

    Currently, NAND flash costs about $45 per gigabyte; atthat price, just the raw memory for a 32-GB drive would

    cost $1440. But that raw memory is only one component inthe SSDs on the market today, which also includea controller loaded with specialized software that

    arbitrates read, write, and erase cycles; checks forbad blocks; corrects for bit errors; and runs algorithms thatensure that the same data isnt written in the same place twice,reducing wear and increasing lifetimes.

    In addition, there is the packaging to make the flash-basedmemory fit into a conventional hard-disk-drive bay, as well as theserial ATA connector that makes the flash drive appear as a hard-disk drive to the computer. All that adds up to at least another$30 to $75 on top of the raw flash cost, according to Esther Spanjer,director of technical marketing for M-Systems Inc., with offices inSunnyvale, Calif., a leading maker of flash-based solid-state disks.Throw in a healthy markup and youve got SSDs that cost thou-sands of dollars for relatively low capacity.

    30 IEEE Spectrum | January 2006 | NA www.spectrum.ieee.org

    Loser TOO LITTLE, TOO SOONSamsungs solid-state disks will be puny, pricey, and impractical

    SOLID-STATE FLASH MEMORIES are everywhere.They boot the operating systems in PCs, storephotos in digital cameras and music in MP3players, and let you tote music, photos, andpresentations on a key chain. Now Samsung is bet-ting that youll be willing to pay hundreds ofdollarsand maybe much moreto have a16- or 32-gigabyte flash-based mem-ory in your notebook computer.

  • Now consider the alternative: a garden-variety60-GB hard-disk drive, which costs around $150.Even allowing that prices for flash memory willcontinue to drop about 35 percent annually, it willbe seven years at least before youll be able to buy60 GB of raw NAND flash for a similar price. Nextyear, 200-GB hard-disk drives are expected to beavailable for less than $200. Hard-drive makers areswitching over to the new perpendicular recordingtechnology, which promises to cram at least200 billion bits into each square inch, twice thedensity possible with current longitudinal writingtechnology. That promises to keep hard drives wayahead of flash drives in terms of density and pricefor years to come.

    Why are solid-state flash drives so shockinglyexpensive relative to hard drives? The capacity ofa flash memory chip depends simply on how manytransistors can be packed onto the chip. So raisingcapacity means turning to ever more advanced chipfabrication equipment. Indeed, Samsung is invest-ing $33 billion in its Hwaseong Semiconductor Plant,with eight new fabrication lines (an undisclosed num-ber of them devoted to flash) due to come on linebetween the end of this year and 2012. The companysnext generation of NAND flash chips, which go intoproduction by year-end, will contain 16.4 billion tran-sistors, thanks to line widths of 50 nanometers.

    The window of opportunity to recover the cap-ital costs associated with such cutting-edge process technol-ogy is vanishingly small. Samsungs Hwang, an IEEE Fellow,stated in the November 2003 Proceedings of the IEEE that inNAND flash, transistor density doubles every 12 months, from256 megabits in 1999 to 8 Gb in 2004. But the cost per gigabyteof flash, while falling 30 to 40 percent per year, has stayed sky-high relative to that for hard drives and will remain so for theforeseeable future.

    Price isnt the only advantage hard drives have over flashdrives. They also win on performance. The read/write speedson hard-disk drives in most notebooks tend to be faster, too,up to 80 megabytes per second for a 2.5-inch disk spinning at7200 revolutions per minute. Samsungs SSD has a respectableread speed of 57 MB/s but a downright poky write speed of32 MB/s. The write speed is the bottleneck in flash, saysKrishna Chander, senior storage analyst for iSuppli Corp., SantaClara, Calif. The latency isnt noticeable to the casual iPod Nanouser, [b]ut in a computer environment, when youre plugging

    www.spectrum.ieee.org January 2006 | IEEE Spectrum | NA 31

    Flash PointsFlash comes in two flavors, NOR and NAND, so named for the arrays oflogic gates that each comprises. Flash can be electrically erased and repro-grammed somewhere between 10 000 and 5 million times before the individ-ual cells, each of which stores a bit, begin to break down and cause errors.

    A cell is a CMOS transistor modified with a special polysilicon gateperched atop a layer of oxide. Writing data involves two steps: erasing,then writing. To write into the cell, voltage is applied, blasting electronsfrom the transistor channel through the oxide, where they wind uptrapped on the gate. To erase data, electrons are forced to leave, often bytunneling through the same oxide.

    All this tunneling takes a physical toll on the cells. NOR flashendures between 10 000 and 100 000 erase/write cycles, and NANDflash withstands from 100 000 up to 5 million cycles.

    NOR and NAND flash differ in other important ways, as well.Individual NOR flash cells are each located at the intersection of a wordline and a bit line, offering random access to the individual bits of codenecessary to boot your PC. Though each NAND cell has its own word line,eight NAND cells share a bit line, limiting NAND flash to sequential accessto its stored bits in blocks of 512 megabytes. With fewer wires, NAND flashcells can be more densely packed, and hence cheaper, than NOR cells.And because NAND cells are arranged in large blocks relative to NOR cells,NAND can be erased and written to much faster than NOR.

    The NAND flash market has enjoyed a compound annual growth rateof 70 percent from 2001 through 2005. Last year, total NAND flashrevenue exceeded that of NOR flash for the first time ever. H.G.

    GOAL: Replace hard driveswith flash-based solid-statedisks.WHY ITS A LOSER: Solid-state disks are extremelyexpensive compared withmagnetic media.

    ORGANIZATION: SamsungElectronics Co.CENTER OF ACTIVITY:Seoul, South Korea.NUMBER OF PEOPLE ON THE PROJECT: Not available. BUDGET: Not available.

    Flash Disk Drives

    an SSD into a notebook, desktop, or mission-critical enterprisesystem, you will notice the difference, Chander notes.

    Over the last decade, SSDs have found their niche in battle-field laptops and warplanes, which demand rugged memorymodules capable of withstanding extremes of temperature, shock,and vibration. Pioneering companies like BitMicro NetworksInc., in Fremont, Calif., and M-Systems Ltd., in Kfar Saba, Israel,have done well in a market where their military customers careless about cost than they do about reliability.

    The opposite holds true for someone who is buying a lap-top for, say, a college-bound student. Those buyers are lookingto get the most memory for their money, and flashs special fea-tures, such as exceptional durability, arent likely to sway them.IDCs Crystal notes: Consumersare basically trained to real-ize that you probably shouldnt throw your laptop across theroom. But while it will be years before consumers adopt SSDs,Crystal adds that these drives, including those from Samsung,will prosper in niche markets.