What are the Limitations

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-09-22

Whats Ahead for the Flash Memory Market?

Flash memory is more than simply a hot commodity—it is rapidly blazing up all the market charts. The overall flash memory market is growing quickly, and the NAND (high-end) flash market in 2005 alone totaled $10.8 billion, up a whopping 63 percent from 2004.

Industry analytics firm iSuppli in El Segundo, Calif., estimates the market will grow to $16.8 billion in 2006 and $26.2 billion in 2009.

Flash memory—a solid-state, rewritable silicon memory chip that holds its content without needing power—had been a successful but unspectacular business up until about four years ago.

Why the sudden upsurge in interest? Apples flash-driven iPod Nano certainly was a factor, but that one product hasnt been the cause of the entire surge in the market.

The next big step, according to most industry watchers, is the introduction of flash memory laptops—or "flashtops"— which will be moving into the U.S. market in 2007.

Jay Kramer is a data storage consultant with Network Storage Advisors in Laguna Beach, Calif., and was the organizer of the first Flash Memory Summit, held in San Jose, Calif. in August.

Kramer has been analyzing flash development since its inception and provided insight into the sector to eWEEK Senior Writer Chris Preimesberger.

What other new ways will we be using flash? Laptops, Ive been told, next year. Any other uses?

New applications for flash memory will be driven by a higher cost premium than disk drive solutions in order to achieve the accelerated performance and environmental specs of flash. Laptops will provide a niche for those power users that are willing to pay a premium for performance and compromise on scalable growth of disk drive technology.

Flash in laptops represents a trade-off in considerable increased price for an enhanced user experience with accelerated speed.

It is interesting that the flash memory product companies are currently very closed-lipped about new flash applications. Many industry pundits speculate this is either to capitalize on new market applications ahead of competition or because the product companies frankly just dont know what the next killer app is going to be. I believe it is a little bit of both.

The Flash Memory Summit included an exhibit of Intels Robson and Microsoft Vista. It is clear that the accelerated performance of flash memory will drive new computer architectures and change the landscape of computing for the future.

Hybrid disk drives/caches: Flash will serve as cache memory inside and outside disk drives as in Windows Vista ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive. It will provide temporary high-speed storage, allowing faster startup and quicker access to applications and limited amounts of data. The amounts of flash in these combinations will increase as the technology advances (but so will disk drive capacity, so the combinations are likely to be around for a long time).

Samsung ships samples of new NAND flash. Click here to read more.

The initial rollout of hybrid drives will be at the low end of the market addressing the consumer segment but as hybrid drives evolve to address the drive products at the enterprise market space, it will be interesting to see if the next wave of flash applications will come from vertical market segments that are pushing the envelope on the need for speed. Examples of these new applications could be:

  • Video broadcast and prepress
  • Seismic and geophysical
  • Oil and gas exploration

    All three of these vertical applications were early adopters of Fibre Channel disk drives a decade ago in order to address high performance. These market segments might become early adopters of innovative flash memory solutions.

    New consumer applications: I cannot believe that the iPod Nano is the only new application we will see. Surely designers will take advantage of flashs small size, high speed, low power needs, and ruggedness to offer other ways of delivering content in a form consumers will want.

    Automobiles: Flash is very well-suited as storage in automobiles with their challenging environments. We will see more applications involving large amounts of readily accessible storage and low-cost processing power.

    Next Page: What are the limitations of flash?

    What are the Limitations

    of Flash?">

    We could, for example, extend navigation systems to include current information that expands with time. Older cars could end up being like older people, that is, having a lot more knowledge to offset their decreased physical performance.

    What are the limitations to what flash memory can do, at least as we know it now?

    The limitations of flash memory are more focused on the cost effectiveness of the technology and not technical limitations. The real question is what are the storage limitations of disk drives, and this is an area that creates opportunity for flash memory solutions.

    Today that disk drive limitation is a capacity play where disk drives cant effectively address lower-capacity applications. This translates to flash memory limitations to scale to the desire for high capacity storage where disk drives today are at a sweet spot.

    The bar keeps moving on to where the market dynamic will drive a flash solution versus a disk solution, and this will be an interesting race to follow.

    During the Flash Memory Summit, one flash memory panelist indicated that no consumer needs more than 48GB of storage, yet a disk drive panelist indicated that there is an insatiable appetite for storage capacity and the desire for increased storage for applications, such as video.

    Fatter flash chips offer PCs a better fit. Click here to read more.

    It will be interesting to see how the consumer views storage requirements and how this controversy shakes out. This will be an interesting follow-up for the next Flash Memory Summit.

    Everybody pretty much agrees, I believe, that flash is here to stay in the market for at least five years and no "exotic" memory types are expected to eclipse it. Do you believe it has staying power beyond that time frame, and why?

    In the technology world, we are always pushing the envelope on new enabling technologies with the expectation that these will eclipse current mainstream solutions. The bottom line is that typically the current mainstream technology has much longer life than anticipated by the technology community, because it is good enough to meet the needs of the marketplace.

    As we look at the emerging 4X flash technology or the perpendicular recording of disk drives currently shipping, both technologies were pipe dreams 5 years ago, yet are reality today.

    I believe we will continue to have successful new innovations and extended life-cycles of flash and disk drive technologies far beyond the timeframe of the next decade, and, although this is not as provocative as the thought of a new killer technology, I think the current technology has a rich future in addressing the needs of the marketplace.

    Can you tell me one or two things about flash that everybody should know—but probably doesnt know?

    With the heightened requirement for security and protecting information assets, flash memory today has many innovative security solutions for encryption and key management to address the next wave of flash applications, for both the consumer and the enterprise marketplace.

    Encapsulation techniques have been developed by some leading flash companies that allow the final product to withstand extreme temperature, shock and vibration—or even submersion in water —as we look at new applications that need industrial-strength quality specifications.

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