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Intel Sees Gold in Solid-State Storage

Intel has quietly become more of a force in storage over the last couple of years. Just visit its Web site and you'll see a range of storage systems and RAID controllers, for example.

The company also supplies plenty of chips to storage OEMs for disk arrays, switches and other subsystems. In fact, the company is developing quite a side business in what is known as Systems on a Chip, or SOCs , which are proving quite popular with storage suppliers.

But the big news is all about solid state drives (SSDs). In fact, it's big enough to get Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) co-founder Gordon Moore personally involved -- the same Moore who coined a well-known law about microprocessor growth.

"There have been a few times in the history of computing when a new technology becomes completely pivotal to changing the PC platform and the user experience," Moore said in a recent video presentation. "Solid-state drives have this capability."

An SSD is a storage device that continuously stores data on solid-state flash memory. There are no moving parts in a solid-state drive, which gives them some advantages over traditional hard drives. They draw far less power, for example. SSDs also provide fast data access because the drive doesn't have to spin up or move to the appropriate drive sector. That translates into faster boot times, too. And the absence of moving parts means heightened reliability.

"For the enterprise space, SSDs enable more performance from the storage system at a better total cost of ownership compared to HDDs," said Kishore Rao, product line manager of high performance for SSD at Intel. "They have higher performance while saving power and increasing reliability at the same time."

On the downside, SSDs are far more expensive than a hard drive. Intel is currently selling these products at bulk discounts (per 1,000) that work out to $595 each. The price to the consumer, then, will likely be more than double that.

However, Intel appears to be betting a whole lot of research dollars on the fact that flash memory prices are dropping and will continue to drop significantly. International Data Corp. (IDC) agrees with that optimism.

"The rapid decline in the cost of flash memory will translate into lower price points for SSD," said Jeff Janukowicz, IDC's research manager for solid-state drives. "These lower price points, coupled with increased SSD capacities, will make them competitive with HDDs in certain market segments, especially where capacity requirements are minimal."

Intel's SSD offerings

Intel has released a few SSDs, which it is selling to OEMs. These are known as the X18-M and X25-M and use multi-level cell (MLC) flash technology. They are aimed mainly at laptop and desktop computers. Validated for Intel-based computers, the X18-M is a 1.8-inch drive, while the X25-M a 2.5-inch drive.

"With no moving parts, SSDs run cooler and quieter and are a more reliable option than hard drives," Rao said. "In addition, SSDs remove input/output performance bottlenecks associated with hard disk drives and this helps to maximize the efficiency of Intel processors. Lab tests show that the Intel X18-M and X25M increase storage system performance nine times over traditional hard disk drive performance."

These devices, though, don't set any capacity records. The X18-M and X25-M are available only in 80GB capacities. Rao notes that 160GB versions will be available later this year or early next year.

Despite their lack of size, however, these 80GB drives have notched up some decent numbers. They achieve up to 250MB per second read speeds, up to 70MB per second write speeds and have an 85-microsecond read latency for fast performance. This is an order of magnitude or more ahead of hard drive latencies.

Of more interest to storage professionals, Intel is also coming out with a line of single-level cell (SLC) SSDs for the server, storage and enterprise environments. Called the Intel X25-E Extreme SATA Solid-State Drive, these products are designed to maximize IOPS and come in 32GB and 64GB capacities.

"Since SSDs lower energy consumption, maintenance, cooling and space costs, an SSD-based data center will reduce overall infrastructure costs while increasing performance-per-square-foot by as much as 50X," Rao said.

But storage is a conservative world. Perhaps there will be a flood of shops testing SSDs in the coming months. But don't expect anything much in production environments for another year or two. Things might be different on the PC/laptop front, though. The probability is that popularity in the consumer market will eventually drive the technology into the enterprise.

"Going forward, the PC market presents the greatest opportunity for SSD demand," Janukowicz said. "The PC market is transitioning from one dominated by desktop PC shipments to notebook PC shipments. This transition increases the importance of mobility and durability requirements, dynamics that align very well with the benefits of SSD."

Greg Schulz, senior analyst and founder of StorageIO Group, agrees with this view, at least initially.

"The Intel Flash SSD drives are a step in the right direction for broader adoption in PCs, desktops, laptops and workstations, as well as in some storage appliance and entry-level based storage systems," Schulz said. "The Intel name and its OEM and channel presence will certainly make a difference. When this is coupled with improvements in power, capacity, write performance, price and operating system/platform integration, we should start to see more SSD devices appearing and being adopted over the next 12-18 months."

He tempers that argument, though, by citing that the economics of flash drives have to come down rapidly or adoption will suffer badly in the current economic climate. Otherwise flash-based SSD will continue to be seen as a nice to have or discretionary item.

The future's so bright

But Moore remains upbeat. He feels there is more than enough in the research pipeline to propel this technology rapidly into the mainstream.

"Two new generations of technology are already in development which will increase density and performance, and decrease cost per bit of SSD," Moore said. "This is unmatched by any other technology I can identify."

With an endorsement like that, solid-state storage seems more a matter of "when" than "if."

This article originally appeared on Enterprise Storage Forum