RealTime IT News

Hitachi/Intel Push Solid State Drives Forward

The entry of Hitachi into the solid state drive (SSD) business marks the first formal effort by a major playing in platter-based disk storage into flash memory storage. Up to now, it has been flash memory makers like Samsung, SanDisk and Micron, and their forte is memory, not storage.

There are more than 70 NAND flash vendors, most of them making Serial ATA (SATA) drives, the standard interface in PCs. But none were making Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) and Fibre Channel SSD storage. That's where Hitachi comes in.

Hitachi will offer its hard drive expertise with those two enterprise-scale storage interfaces to Intel (NASDAQ: INTC). The deal is exclusive between the two firms, as well.

"These technologies tend to be very complex. When you partner, you pick the technology leader and put all your resources into making sure its technology works with yours," Brendan Collins, vice president of product marketing at Hitachi, told InternetNews.com. "Then you have to validate it on your file system as well. To do that with a couple of flash vendors would be kind of tough and the market is very small and wouldn't justify it."

The planned capacities will be 73GB, 147GB and 300GB, the same storage size as the ultra-fast 15,000 RPM drives used in RAID 5 systems. They will come in 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch drive form factors, which will fit nicely in a blade or rack mounted server.

By using the Hitachi controller chips, server OEM and software vendors can stick with software they have written for the Hitachi controllers. That will make migrating a server using hard disk drives to SSDs easier in the future.

Solid state drives are a popular new technology breakthrough because they offer the speed, low power consumption and relative low heat advantage of flash memory over a hard drive. They don't spin, so less power is needed or generated, making them popular in laptops. With no latency time because there is no idle drive to spin up, they have much faster read time than a standard hard disk.

The drawbacks are the cost - SSD costs a premium over standard hard disks, although the price has come down considerably - and the technology is still new and unproven in an enterprise setting. More than anything, that might be where veterans like Intel and Hitachi can advance the cause of the technology.

Forks in the SSD road

Collins said the deal with Intel is for SAS and Fibre only, but he left the door open to mass market SATA. "What we initially thought was since Intel and Samsung have SATA-based products, we probably wouldn't bother going after that space," he said. "We got very strong feedback from OEMs over the past week saying they would like us to have all three interfaces [SATA, SAS, Fibre] on SSD well. But that's something for the future and not in the first generation."

SSDs could use some unification. One of the problems with SSDs in notebooks has been a lack of compatibility and interoperability. Years ago, hard drive makers like Western Digital, Seagate, Hitachi and other vendors worked out standards so no matter what hard drive went into a computer, it would always be properly recognized.

SSDs don't do that, notes Krishna Chander, senior analyst for storage products at iSuppli. As a result, a laptop maker has to individually test and qualify each drive, to make sure it will work on their hardware.

"There was some clear pushback from OEMs, saying 'hey, I want to know if I buy from two suppliers that I won't need separate qualification. I need to know if I can interchange them'," he told InternetNews.com. "You can change branded parts transparently in different notebooks and desktops. You couldn't do that with SSDs. So that was a problem, and that is a problem Hitachi is working on mitigating."

Because the computers saw the SSD as a hard drive, it treated it as one, which meant accounting for latency. Even though hard drives have latency in the under 10 millisecond range, an SSD has none. There is no platter to spin up from an idle state. So while a hard drive needs time to stall while it came up to speed, the SSD had no such need.

But while Samsung has expressed a desire to get into the 15k market, Chander doesn't believe that will happen any time soon. "Don't expect customers to roll over and put in SSDs with banking and stock market transactions taking place," he said. "There's a very slow penetration rate in the enterprise. They wring it out for three to five years before they accept it."

Chander was glad to see a veteran hard drive vendor like Hitachi finally get into the SSD market. "It's a step in the right direction for SSDs because hard drive vendors are going to have to say 'I won't pretend SSDs don't exist.' They are actually doing investments," he said.