Intel: Hitting Flash Market at Both Ends

Intel  made an unusual discovery in its work on a solid state Flash drive: It could use the same technology at the bottom end of the technological scale as it could at the very top end.

The chipmaker has entered the Flash drive market with its Z-U130 Value Solid-State Drive, which uses NAND  Flash memory with a USB  interface. The drives come in 1GB, 2GB, 4GB and 8GB densities with read times of 28MB per second and a write time of 20MB per second.

The original plan was to make small drives for Intel’s Classmate PC, a laptop in the $200-$300 price range and geared for emerging markets. However, Intel’s server teams began to inquire about using the drives to speed up the boot time in servers.

“We were surprised ourselves, because we absolutely were targeting the low end of the market with this drive, but through our discussions with server teams here at Intel, we found new applications for the drive,” Greg Matson, product marketing manager in the NAND products group at Intel, told

The server teams wanted to use the Flash memory in place of the slower hard drive to improve boot time, and it worked. Some of the experiments in the labs reduced boot time from 200 seconds down to just 14 seconds. “Now, I would not say that’s a typical use case, but there are dramatic boot time improvements to be made using a Flash drive,” said Matson.

The Z-U130 Value Solid State Drive is expected to have an average mean time between failure (MTBF) specification of approximately five million hours, about average for Flash, Matson said, and certainly better than the average of 100,000 hours for a hard disk.

However, Intel is not gunning for SanDisk with this product, as it has no consumer product aims. Matson said Intel will come out with more Flash drives later this year, both aimed at specific markets, but it will leave the Flash cards to other vendors.

One future market will be for mobile Vista users. Vista has a feature called ReadyBoost, where a notebook with a relatively small amount of memory can use a USB thumb drive, which come with up to 1GB of Flash memory, as a cache.

As part of the forthcoming Santa Rosa mobile platform, Intel has developed a Flash-based cache called Robson. It’s designed specifically for ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive in Windows Vista.

Despite Intel’s assurances that it has no interest in the consumer market, Jim McGregor, research director for In-Stat, told he thinks SanDisk and the other players in the market segment have a lot to fear with the arrival of Intel and Micron, which got into Flash in a big way with the March 2006 acquisition of Lexar.

“I think anyone in the Flash market has something to worry about. Micron and Intel are both formidable contenders. The ultimate goal for Intel as with anyone else in that segment is the consumer segment. That’s where the high volume is.”

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