06:35 PM

The Disappearing Disk Drive - Flash Taking Over

"We're not talking 10, 20 percent improvement here. It (SSDs) can be 10 times more reliable. It can be a thousand times faster than a hard disk. This is very disruptive." -- Rob Crooke, vice president, general manager of Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group

By Intel Free Press

Smartphones and tablets start almost instantly. Search engines deliver results before you finish typing a query. NAND, [a type of flash memory] makes it possible.

Industry analyst group IHS predicts that flash memory shipments will reach 16.3 billion gigabytes by 2015, up from 1.6 billion in 2011.

Recently, Rob Crooke, vice president, general manager of Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group, took time to discuss the competitive landscape, the growing demand for SSDs and how NAND will "disrupt" the computing industry.

If the CPU is the brains of a PC, what is NAND?

NAND is the long-term memory. When your computer goes to sleep, NAND memory is still around. When the computer wakes up, NAND memory helps you very quickly get back to where you were before.

When you push the [power] button and you get the rapid-resume experience, you are accessing the memory already saved in the NAND on an SSD.

When you do a Google search, it used to be that you would type the whole search, and you would hit "enter," and then it would come up. Now what happens is as soon as you start typing characters, search results start showing up underneath the search box. They can do this because they have NAND in SSDs near the compute engine and can do those searches very quickly as you type.

Where else is NAND?

Most people see NAND in storage devices, like smart cards or the SD card that goes in your camera or your phone, or the USB drive that people stick into their computers to move files around instead of a floppy [disk] these days. That's what we would call "commodity NAND," the lowest-cost, lowest-quality NAND.

And it goes all the way up to SSDs that users see in their computers. So the difference between that rotating hard disk that you used to have in your computer and that really fast-booting, fast-resuming thing is solid-state NAND in there as a drive.

Smaller than a typical postage stamp and able to store 1 terabit of data, Intel and Micron's 20-nanometer NAND flash chip was named "Semiconductor of the Year" by UBM TechInsights.

You've said that NAND is going to disrupt the computing industry. How?

Ultrabook responsiveness is driven in part by the integration of SSDs. It can have longer battery life. It can be quieter. It can be lower power. It can be more reliable. It can be faster. It can have a lot longer life. We're not talking 10, 20 percent improvement here. It can be 10 times more reliable. It can be a thousand times faster than a hard disk. This is very disruptive.

Intel's data says we have 80,000 solid state drives deployed at Intel. A hard-disk crash, our data says, was at about 4 percent plus per year. Our data indicates that SSDs deployed at Intel fail at half a percent per year.

When you hear those kinds of things, you ask, "Why doesn't everyone just convert?" The answer is because it's more expensive -- at the moment. But our view is companies see that the total cost is actually lower over time because employees are also more productive.

Intel used to have its NAND in phones. Why is Intel not in that business today?

Smartphones -- whether Android or Apple -- are using NAND and not fully taking advantage of it. They're using commodity NAND.

The reality is Intel is a computing company, and we really want to be in computing devices. So in late 2009 we made the shift to focus on compute-oriented NAND, focusing on Intel's core market segments: the notebook business, the desktop business, the server business. The demand for SSDs started to grow fast and we had a bigger market to serve. This shift required that we engineer and optimize our NAND cells differently than other vendors offering bulk-commodity NAND.

Having said that, future developments may make our compute NAND more relevant to smartphones and tablets. For now, we're growing our business.

Who are some of Intel's biggest competitors in the NAND space?

Samsung and Toshiba are by far our two biggest competitors. Because of the explosive growth in the demand for SSDs, there are a lot of companies participating. Some of them are specializing in specific segments like server SSDs, lower-cost consumer SSDs. And we're competing with all of those companies because we're trying to be a broad-market SSD manufacturer.

Intel has an enormous opportunity in NAND because of our knowledge of the computing market. But we have some hard work ahead of us. We need to sustain our leadership in non-volatile memory technology. And we need to evolve our SSD development to serve multiple segments simultaneously

Because of that growth in demand for SSDs, some analysts say SSD prices will drop. What would that do for our margins?

With lithography transitions, the cost structure will improve, but we will need to continue to drive new features that will benefit our customers. Today, we're delivering some of the most reliable SSDs in the market through an extensive validation process, something that not all of our competitors do to the same extent.

In the future, we are looking at manageability features and connections to the platforms that will help offer differentiation. The process technology lead that we've had since 34nanometer continues to be very important as some of our competitors have a significant scale advantage over us for the time being.