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Solid state disks: Product upgrades to fuel growth

Consolidated efforts of component providers and terminal suppliers to enhance performance and lower prices will accelerate penetration.

Product upgrades and the anticipated decline in NAND flash memory cost are keeping China suppliers of solid state disks optimistic about the industry's development. The positive outlook is expected to boost the device's minority status in the country's portable storage segment.

Solid state disk
The model K5-64 SSD from Solidata comes in a 2.5in form factor and supports 250MBps read and 200MBps write speeds.

The slow market acceptance in past years was due mainly to two factors: high prices and operation flaws. The latter includes unstable reading rate, poor multitasking and random writing performance, and low writing speed, with some models delivering only 40MBps. Disk fragments that cannot be cleared have also proven problematic to makers.

As most of these are attributed to the controller IC, chipset providers, together with local SSD manufacturers, are increasing efforts to develop better terminal products. They have released new solutions that help stabilize reading performance.

For their part, SSD suppliers are taking steps to boost quality. Many are adopting RAID 0, which can raise the writing speed to as much as 190MBps.

Some manufacturers are enhancing multitasking capability through variants with cache, usually in 64MB DDR or DDR2 configuration. For applications not requiring the installation of an OS, versions without cache are still available.

Recently launched ICs, improved firmware or software, and built-in cache have jointly reduced problems associated with random writing. To clear out disk fragments, specialized programs that work even when the SSD is not in operation are adopted by various companies.

But even with these efforts, the line still trails HDDs as the preferred storage medium in the notebook PC sector.

Although SSDs boast low power consumption, high data transfer rate, anti-shock properties and long mean time between failures or MTBF, HDDs continue to rule supply.

This is because hard drives are less expensive and support a larger capacity. Currently, solid state disks are 10 to 40 times more costly, due mainly to fluctuating NAND flash memory overhead.

The component rose from $1.65 in December 2008 to $3.15 in March 2009. It increased further to $4.52 in August but slightly decreased to $4.42 by the end of last year. In future, however, China suppliers are positive outlay will gradually drop as NAND flash providers start adopting the 20nm manufacturing process in 4Q10. With prices of SSDs expected to follow, companies hope the medium will penetrate the mainstream storage market next year.

This optimism reflects positive projections for the global SSD segment. Gartner estimates shipments will hit $4.7 billion by 2012, a huge jump from 2008's $342 million.

Output volume will achieve a CAGR of 54 percent in 2008-13, according to IDC. The line is also expected to be one of the top three largest NAND flash applications, together with USB drives and portable media players.

Broadening applications
Mainstream selection
Components & sourcing
Supplier base & capability
Taiwan: Adoption in netbooks, projected price drop spur production

Solid state disk
Biwin's model SSD102-64GB SSD is available in 16, 32, 64 and 128GB capacity, and has 1 million hours of MTBF.
Broadening applications

The low utilization in netbooks, which used to be SSD's primary market, is driving many China suppliers to explore other segments under efforts to enlarge customer base.

Although worldwide netbook shipments are estimated to have doubled in 2009 from the previous year, the yield of models with built-in SSDs declined 64 percent YoY, according to DRAMeXchange. This is mainly due to the storage device's high failure rate, which reaches 40 percent.

To boost output and margins, manufacturers are turning out more units specifically for industrial, medical, network, military and financial applications. Current-generation products also cater to the server sector, where adoption continues to rise.

The country's leading Internet search engine company, Baidu, for instance, has changed its server storage technology to SSD. This made the internal transmission rate 100 times faster than when HDDs were used.

Other organizations and institutions, including government departments, logistics enterprises, hospitals, and game, bank and telecom operations, have likewise switched to solid state disks for their database systems.

Makers are also expanding lineup to meet the requirements of different clients. Low-cost models that list at $30 are mainly for personal users and entry-level companies. Large-capacity units with as much as 1TB memory target enterprises looking to replace their old HDDs.

High-performance versions are suitable for Internet, military and industrial applications. These can work in -40 to 85 C, and have read and write speeds of 150 to 230MBps and 120 to 200MBps, respectively.

Solid state disk
Joint-Horizon offers the JH-SATA+USB2.5 model, an SSD equipped with SATA II and USB interfaces.
Mainstream selection

China suppliers provide SSDs based mainly on MLC as SLC is less preferred by clients because of cost considerations. Customers, however, may request units adopting the latter.

Mainstream models come in 32, 64, 128 and 256GB versions, although some can reach 1TB. ECC is a basic function, and MTBF is usually 1 million hours. Products typically have one interface, which can be SATA, SATA II, eSATA, IDE or USB.

Entry-level variants have a capacity of 8 to 32GB, and 110 to 130MBps read and 38 to 60MBps write speeds. The writing endurance is 10 years for 100GB write/erase per day. Most versions in this category operate in 0 to 70 C. Prices range from $30 to $99.

Units with 32 to 128GB memory are classified as midrange and are between $130 and $320. These have 110 to 150MBps read and 60 to 100MBps write speeds. The writing endurance for 128GB is 80 years at 10GB write/erase per day. They work in 0 to 70 C but some types handle -40 to 85 C.

Models belonging to the high end have a capacity ranging from 128 to 256GB. The read and write rates are 150 to 230MBps and 120 to 200MBps. The writing endurance is the same as 128GB midlevel products. Most are quoted at $380 to $680. Variants with 512GB capacity are about $2,000, while 1TB versions are as high as $3,800.

SSDs with 64MB cache are $40 more expensive than those without. Units with a metal housing are priced $2 to $3 higher than versions adopting plastic.

Components & sourcing

NAND flash memory and controller ICs are the key components of SSDs. China suppliers source the first mainly from Samsung, Toshiba, Intel, Hynix and Micron. Samsung solutions are said to have better characteristics and are therefore more expensive. Models from Toshiba are the most-popular choice because of their cost-performance ratio.

The major providers of controller ICs are Intel, Samsung, JMicron and Indilinx. The first two are preferred by international SSD manufacturers. Local companies, on the other hand, usually purchase the component from JMicron and Indilinx. The former's JM612 model is now widely utilized domestically. This comes with TFBGA package and ARM9 core, and supports up to 256MB DDR/DDR2 memory as cache.

Biwin Technology Ltd has released an SSD based on the JM612. It has 64MB DDR2 cache, and 250MBps read and 190MBps write speeds. Solidata Technology International Co. Ltd has launched an industrial model based on the same IC. The product sustains read and write rates of up to 230 and 200MBps, respectively.

The Barefoot solution from Indilinx is suitable for SSDs to be used as a system disk. It has a slower random writing than Intel's ICs but is faster in terms of constant writing. The product is packed with an ARM7TDMI processor and 16 to 64MB 166MHz SDRAM as cache. Companies adopting ICs from Indilinx include Joint-Horizon Technology Co. Ltd.

Most suppliers buy total solutions, consisting of PCBs with controller ICs and other components, and conduct assembly in-house.

Supplier base & capability

China has more than 50 SSD manufacturers. Most also offer USB flash drives, memory cards and MP3/MP4 players, which they still pursue as core business. Solid state disks account for 20 to 30 percent of their output.

As the technology used for the product does not differ much from that of USB flash drives, more suppliers of the latter are entering the line. The number of white-box makers likewise increased 30 to 50 percent from 2008. They are not involved in volume manufacture but keep a close watch on the developments in the industry.

Newly established companies such as Shenzhen Hugetech Electronic Technology Development Co. Ltd, Solidata and Joint-Horizon focus on SSDs. These have established close relationships with USB flash drive providers.

Suppliers handle PCB assembly, testing and packaging in-house. Some own facilities for mold making and SMT but most subcontract these procedures to partner factories for cost considerations. Producing a new mold, for instance, requires $120 to $150.

The majority of enterprises are small and midsize operations based in Guangdong province. The others are in Beijing and the provinces of Hubei and Hunan.

Solid state disk
Taiwan: Adoption in netbooks, projected price drop spur production

Although HDDs remain the primary storage medium used in notebook and desktop computers, Taiwan suppliers continue manufacture of solid state disks. This is in response to optimistic projections for the line in coming years.

The storage technology's penetration of the netbook segment, for instance, will increase from 2008's 10 percent to 50 percent by 2013, according to Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute. The research firm predicts prices of SSDs will continue in a downward trend, which is expected to help accelerate market acceptance. Units with 32GB capacity are forecast to list at $21 in 2012 and fall to $13 by 2013. Those with 120GB will be quoted at $ 79 in 2012, decreasing to $ 49 the year after.

Currently, the 30 to 40 companies in the island provide 1.8 and 2.5in SSDs in embedded and stand-alone models, with the former dominating output. The latter type commonly supports eSATA and USB 2.0 interfaces.

Versions suitable for industrial PCs generally have the IDE interface. The trend, however, is shifting to SATA because of its faster transfer speed. Variants with SATA II port are adopted in consumer electronic devices.

SSDs based on ExpressCard/34 are likewise on offer, with 8, 16 and 32GB capacity. These are targeted at mobile PCs.

Products in the category can function as an external USB flash drive using a USB adapter.

They also work as a removable storage device via USB 2.0.

ExpressCard enables both PCI Express and USB 2.0 connections.

The largest storage capacity for 2.5in SATA SSDs is 256GB, while that for 1.8in units is 128GB.

This article "Solid state disks: Product upgrades to fuel growth" is originally posted in Global Sources.

Note: All price quotes in this report are in US dollars unless otherwise specified. FOB prices were provided by the companies interviewed only as reference prices at the time of interview and may have changed.

Disclaimer: All product images are provided by the companies interviewed and are for reference purposes only. Those product images featuring products with trademarks, brand names or logos are not intended for sale. We, our affiliates, and our affiliates' respective directors, officers, employees, representatives, agents or contractors, do not accept and will not have any responsibility or liability for product images (or any part thereof) which infringe on any intellectual property or other rights of a third party.

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