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Intel, Micron Multiply Their SSD Cells

Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and Micron today announced plans to ship 3-bit-per-cell multi-level cell (MLC) NAND flash memory by the end of the year, increasing the density of NAND flash chips and thus reducing the amount of space needed to store data.

The two firms have an alliance to develop NAND products dating back to 2005. This is the first product to use Micron's 34-nanometer lithography process.

NAND flash is widely used as a means of storage because unlike regular memory, it can retain data when powered off. It's used in cigarette lighter-sized USB drives, mobile phones and music players like the iPod Touch.

There are two types of NAND flash: Single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level cell (MLC). SLC is used primarily in solid state drives (SSDs) and are considered the fastest of NAND chips. Each cell in the memory holds one bit of data. With MLC, the cells hold two or three bits.

Because of this, the amount of read/write I/O involving the cell theoretically doubles or triples, and NAND cells have a life span that's determined by usage. Literally, the more they are addressed, the faster they wear out. As such, SLC was the choice for SSDs up until last year, when advances in MLC technology improved performance and the life span of the drives.

The trade-off with MLC is that while slower and having a theoretically shorter lifespan, they also store more bits in the same space. In going from two bits per cell to three, that means the flash chip can be shrunk in size. That means taking up less space for the same capacity, which in turn makes them cheaper to make.

NAND chips come in 32 gigabit die sizes now, and the smaller size means they can be used in many more form factors, according to Troy Winslow, director of NAND marketing at Intel.

These are also the first at 34nm, which was an important step for Intel. "The most important thing is this is a silicon milestone to show that Intel and Micron are able to continue to innovate with silicon in driving down cost and eventually capacity points," he told InternetNews.com.

By sticking with 32 gigabits, capacity doesn't increase immediately but there are other benefits, like smaller size and possibly a lower power draw. The next big move is when the two firms move to a smaller die size, 2X nanometer. The final die size is not set yet.

The next breakthrough in thumb drive storage

At that size, Intel sees chips going to 64 gigabit capacity, or 8GB. That could lead to cheap, cost effective USB thumb drives replacing the 1GB to 4GB thumb drives on the market now.

Intel and Micron will be sampling the new die later this year, but Winslow declined to comment on whether there will be a detailed discussion on it at the upcoming Intel Developer Forum, taking place in San Francisco next month.

At the same time, Intel and Micron will continue to work on improving the performance of MLC – which Winslow said can be between 10 and 30 percent slower than SLC – through firmware upgrades, as well as increasing its lifespan to more evenly match SLC.

"First we needed to prove the manufacturability of it, with the intention of furthering this technology and improving it for future generations," he said. "Certainly we plan to do it in the next one to two years."