Ready to Carry Terabytes in Your Pocket?

SanDisk (NASDAQ: SNDK) and Sony announced at the CES show plans for joint development of two new high capacity memory sticks that will expand flash memory into the multi terabyte range.

The two firms will work on “Memory Stick format for Extended High Capacity” (its tentative name) and “Memory Stick HG Micro.” The Extended High Capacity format will expand upon the “Memory Stick PRO” format currently used by Sony and will be the high capacity format, holding up to 2TB of data.

The HG Micro format is designed for high speed data transfers, with speed of up to 60 megabytes per second (MB/s), making it one of the fastest-smallest memory card formats to date.

Memory sticks are traditionally used in consumer products, like high-definition digital still cameras, DSLR cameras, and camcorders. By expanding capacity to the terabyte range, Sony and SanDisk see the thumbnail sized drives being used in other applications.

But don’t toss your 32GB Memory Stick PRO drives just yet. The higher capacity drives are years off. A SanDisk spokesperson told newer, higher capacity drives would not reach the market this year.

It may seem ambitious to go from 32GB to 2TB in NAND flash memory, but Bob Merritt, principal analyst with Convergent Semiconductors, said NAND is actually advancing faster than standard DRAM memory.

“The cell structure of NAND is proving to be easier to manufacture than DRAM cells as they go past 50nm range,” he told “Many NAND guys are in 30 to 40nm range and NAND is driving lithography levels.” The cost per bit has been going down faster for NAND than standard DRAM, making it easier to manufacture NAND.

Merritt believes long-term, NAND is headed for higher capacities and moving into the datacenter, something Samsung has predicted in the past. He cited an IBM journal that said hard disk storage can’t keep up with the advances in semiconductors. “Therefore, a non-volatile memory technology will eventually arise to take a bigger and bigger piece of that market,” he said.

While it is possible for flash-based solid state disk (SSD) drives to become mainstream this year, he added that the technology needs to be shaken out over time, through real world scenarios, provings and experience that a lab test can’t fully simulate.

“The memory side of the house never had to address something with limited duty cycles,” Merritt explained. Random access memory has unlimited use, but NAND flash memory has a finite amount of times it can be erased before it fails. “So the industry never defined that requirement in terms meaningful to OEMs. That’s why this seems to be a bigger issue than it really is. OEMs aren’t sure what it means to support their customers.”

What it means to them is bad news. If customers deploy SSD drives in mission critical environments, it makes the OEM look bad for selling an unproven product and the memory vendors look bad for pushing a flawed replacement for something that worked, in this case hard disk storage.

“The challenge for the flash drives is the number of times you can erase the data in individual cells,” said Merritt. “There’s a lot of new work being done in that area, but if we are talking about replacing huge disk drives, the challenge for semiconductor industry is the number of times a drive can be erased and rewritten.”

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