AMD Pushes for Flash Revolution

By Mark Hachman  |  Posted 2004-11-12

AMD Pushes for Flash Revolution

SUNNYVALE, Calif.—Advanced Micro Devices Inc. plans to challenge the NAND flash market dominated by Samsung and Toshiba with a new, hybrid flash memory designed for removable storage.

The "ORNAND" flash, scheduled for an introduction in 2005, will allow AMD to break out of its niche in the NOR flash market—which it shares with Intel Corp.—and compete in the market for flash memory cards. AMD executives disclosed the technology as part of the companys fall analyst meeting Friday at its headquarters here.

With ORNAND, AMD hopes to attach a NAND interface to a NOR chip, allowing popular small-form-factor storage media, such as Secure Digital cards, to be created with AMDs memory.

Bertrand Cambou, chief executive of AMDs Spansion LLC flash-memory joint venture with Fujitsu Ltd., said the company has been in talks with several of the small-form-factor flash card organizations, including the MMC (MultiMedia Card) coalition.

"Our engineers have essentially architected a new invention which we believe can bring about a new revolution," Cambou said. The combination of NOR flash and the NAND interface is "the best of both worlds," he said, and will be pin-compatible with NAND solutions.

Once the technology ramps up, ORNAND will be a "disruptive technology," added Hector Ruiz, AMDs chairman, chief executive and president.

Although AMD is typically seen as a microprocessor company, its flash revenues have equaled or in some periods even surpassed the revenue it received from its microprocessor business. But the market in which it competes, NOR flash, has been a two-horse race between it and rival Intel, with AMD winning.

With ORNAND, AMD will now be competing in a far more punishing market: AMD and Intel rank third and fourth in overall flash memory production behind Samsung Electronics and Toshiba Ltd., respectively.

NOR flash was originally designed for code storage, the programs and applications used by cell phones and PDAs. As the need for mobile storage has grown, however, demand has also increased for NAND storage, used to store data. NAND costs less per bit than NOR flash and is of higher density. The downside, however, is that NAND is perceived as less reliable than NOR flash.

To read about a new flash line from Intel, click here.

Since flash memory constantly flirts with commodity status, pricing will be the most effective lever to position ORNAND against traditional NAND flash, analysts said.

That means AMD must be able to effectively manufacture the chip through a cost-effective manufacturing process, which it will achieve by moving to larger wafers, shrinking its manufacturing process and increasing its output. The end goal is to dilute the manufacturing costs further and further, allowing the company to keep lowering prices while turning a profit.

To do that, the Spansion venture intends to convert its 200-mm wafer fab JV3 fab in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Japan, to a larger facility eventually capable of producing 300-mm wafers at 65-nm linewidths and beyond, Cambou said.

The JV3 fab currently has a portion, dubbed "SP1," dedicated to 200-mm production lines that will be converted over the next few years to a single, 250,000-square-foot clean room capable of 60,000 wafers per month, Cambou said.

Although AMD plans to hold its 2004 and 2005 capital equipment costs stable at $1.5 billion, about $100 million will be diverted to Spansion in 2005 to begin funding the expansion, AMD chief financial officer Bob Rivet said.

The larger wafer size will allow more flash chips to be produced, amortizing the fixed manufacturing cost over a larger number of chips. In addition, Cambou pledged to reach the 65-nm manufacturing node by early 2007, the same time table that both Samsung and Toshiba have publicly stated.

Next Page: Claiming a lower wafer-processing cost than the NAND providers.


-Processing Cost"> AMD is currently producing flash chips using 110-nm lines—a more advanced process than Intel—which has allowed its business to make money even as unit demand has dropped.

AMD also will announce a "great new detail" about its shift to next-generation 90-nm technology in the coming weeks, Cambou said. By 2007, AMD will shift its manufacturing again, down to 45 nanometers.

AMD also claims a lower wafer-processing cost than the NAND providers, according to Jim Handy, director of nonvolatile memory research at Phoenix-based Semico Research Corp.

What does all of this mean for the flash market? Probably a price war, Handy said, at least by Samsung. Toshiba has been pushing its MLC (multilevel cell) technology, which packs more than one bit of storage into a cell. AMDs "MirrorBit" flash memories use a similar technology, and Intel also has developed MLC capabilities.

"There havent been many [memory] controllers available for Toshibas MLC technology, which has hurt them," Handy said. "Thats going to change, and then its going to be all about multilevel cell."

Macromedia is taking flash mobile. Click here to read more.

ORNAND will offer a performance advantage, Cambou claimed. ORNAND initially will offer 8-Mbyte data rates, the same data rate achieved by Samsungs single-level-cell flash memory.

When the ORNAND memory is combined with AMDs MirrorBit multilevel-cell technology, however, the effective data rate will increase to about 25 Mbytes/sec, significantly faster than any NAND-based flash cards.

AMD also will begin attacking the removable flash memory market directly, Cambou said, although he did not disclose further details.

AMD eyes commercial PC market in 2005

AMDs revelations in the microprocessor space were far less significant. AMDs roadmap to multicore processors is well-known, and the company demonstrated the technology and its potential performance implications at the Fall Processor Forum in San Jose, Calif., in October. AMD executives offered no new details.

One open question concerns the issue of pricing; for example, whether AMD will charge double for placing two cores on a single chip. Dirk Meyer, head of AMDs Computation Products Group, said the company had yet to decide on prices for the new chips, which will likely run at slower clock speeds than the single-core parts. The subject is the topic of a focus group, he said.

The answer will affect AMDs standing in the commercial space, which is now the focus of the company. AMD has flipped its corporate emphasis to focus on commercial customers more than the consumer market, although "were not writing that market off," Meyer said.

Internally, the company has changed a tagline on its AMD64 logo program from "Whos Next?" to "Whos Left?"—a combination of circumstances that led some to believe that AMD may be refocusing its efforts on Dell Inc., the largest commercial PC vendor in the world.

A report that implied Dell chief executive Kevin Rollins was considering carrying an Opteron server line was read with great interest at AMD, Meyer said in a brief interview.

"I was very pleased to read it. … Its been interesting to watch the evolution of his position [on using AMD chips] in the past couple of weeks," Meyer said.

AMD recently signed Chartered Semiconductor as an additional chip foundry, with capacity coming on line in 2006 to supply customers with AMD64 processors.

A second report, saying that Microsoft had passed over the Intel Itanium 2 with its latest clustering software, was shrugged off both by analysts and by Meyer. Only 13 entries on the Top500 supercomputer list are Itanium-based clusters; the Itanium is part of Intels "scale-up" program for monolithic computers.

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