Whats Ahead for the Flash Memory Market?

Q&A: Flash memory-once relegated to embedded applications and USB thumb drives-is maturing to become a major player in several new areas of IT. Where is it ultimately heading, and which sectors will this affect?

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).

/zimages/4/28571.gifSamsung 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?

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...