The picture isn't crystal clear just yet, but at CES we cleared part of the cloud surrounding companies 2011 solid state drive products. At the very least we will see seven new SSD controllers enter the market in 2011. Of those, four are directed at the consumer market and three are enterprise designs. Only time will tell which consumer controllers get converted to enterprise models and vice versa. Of the seven overall, we saw working samples of three and they were all twice as fast as the Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB drive.
2011 isn't all about controllers, though. The types of flash memory will play a more significant role this year. The new flash will make it possible to practically deliver 512GB SSDs while at the same time reducing the cost of SSDs across the board. Don't look for price reductions until Q4, though. Just like last year, the controllers will be expensive and companies will need to recoup their tooling costs early in the production runs.
When it comes to pricing, we only heard from one controller manufacturer and he stated that launch prices should be around 20% higher than the products that are on the market now. With SandForce 120GB SSDs dipping down to 200 USD on a good day, we might actually see a 120GB next generation SandForce SSD selling at 240 USD, but for some reason I have my doubts about that fairy tale until late 2011. We will keep our fingers crossed, though.
Today we are going to break down the rumors and facts and divide everything up based on controller manufacturers. Let's dive in and get started.
SandForce didn't have the fastest overall SSD in 2010, but they made the biggest impact. To be fair, only the 240GB drive took a back seat to Crucial's Real SSD C300 256GB drive in performance, but SandForce made up for their single shortcoming by delivering class leading performance in the 40, 50, 60, 80, 90, 100, 120, 400 and 480GB capacity points. Obviously SandForce and their partner manufacturers went a little overboard with capacity sizes, but SSDs are the fastest and easiest way to boost a computers performance and companies tried to deliver a product to fit every budget.
SandForce was very successful in gaining partners to deliver their controllers to. If you thought 2010 was big, just wait and see what happens this year. In 2011 SandForce has converted Kingston from Intel at the high end, and Kingston, a massive power player in every market, will ship thousands of SandForce consumer drives in 2011. Kingston previously sold Intel enterprise drives as well and I wouldn't be surprised to see Kingston deliver an enterprise SandForce SSD, too. Other partners, known around here as 'Team SandForce', will also be returning in 2011 and I don't foresee anyone dropping off anytime soon. I will cover a little more of this on the next page.
SandForce's largest partner to date has been OCZ Technology and without OCZ SandForce might still be a company dreaming of the big time. At CES, OCZ was the only partner to show a next generation SandForce SSD working. The OCZ Technology Vertex 3 Pro, an enterprise class model, was churning data at over 540MB/s and delivering 70K IOPS. The Pro model isn't even the flagship; that designation goes to the EX and it's capable of over 80K IOPS, or nearly twice that of the consumer drive we have today.
Off the cuff the only thing I can see going wrong for SandForce in 2011 is their focus on the enterprise sector. Enterprise models require more validation and with it more effort and time than consumer drives. This actually works out better for consumers since all of the heavy lifting goes into getting the enterprise drive ready, but it also pushes the development of the consumer drives back further into the year. As it sits right now, March appears to be the magic date for the Vertex 3 Pro and EX enterprise drives and the consumer models will only come after the enterprise gets their next generation product.
In the enterprise market SandForce will have to compete with Intel and Toshiba. At CES we saw an Intel / Hitachi enterprise drive that was not working, but the real news was from Toshiba. Toshiba had a working sample of their next generation enterprise drive and it was turning out big numbers as well.
On the consumer side SandForce appears to have the fastest SSD for 2011, but it's time to market will be an issue. In March Marvell and what will soon be known as Team Marvell will have consumer drives ready; the Crucial M4 leading the charge in this group. We are not in a position to call winners yet, though, but the on paper, the numbers suggest that SandForce will deliver over 530MB/s to consumers and Marvell will be closer to 470MB/s. If both drives hit the market at the same time, things would be a lot easier for the crystal ball, but as it sits right now, Team Marvell will have a three month advantage on Team SandForce in the consumer market space.
Good things come to those who wait, though. The next generation SandForce controller can use just about every type of NAND on the market. Look for manufacturers to experiment with flash to deliver high performing and lower cost products at the same time.
Marvell and Crucial
In 2010 we couldn't really talk about Marvell without talking about Micron / Crucial, but things are about to change. Marvell is now preparing a team of SSD manufacturers, but the model remains a little cloudy at this time. On one side Micron / Crucial are preparing the RealSSD C400 (Micron) and the C4 (Crucial). I won't even get into that naming snafu today, since it's out of my control, but the naming isn't really that big of a story.
At Computex we tested a next generation drive from ADATA, the S501. Once we got home with the drive we took a closer look and found that LiteOn had their hands in the drive. It appears that LiteOn, the company we all know from optical storage products, is developing their own Marvell based SSD. It looks like LiteOn will be the OEM for the builder, and several companies soon to be called 'Team Marvell' will sell the drive. So far we know of Plextor and ADATA, but with Corsair and possibly Patriot releasing Marvell controlled SSDs, Team Marvell appears to be growing. Of course, no one will share who their OEM is, but LiteOn will be a big player in 2011 even if they are behind the scenes and even if they are just in place for a development role.
We expect our first next generation Marvell controller sample to come from Crucial and we could see it any day now. Crucial will deliver the first next generation consumer SSD in 2011, the C4. This is going to play out well for Crucial since Team SandForce will trail in the consumer space by at least two to three months; maybe even longer. Things aren't perfect, though, for Crucial / Team Marvell. The rumor is that the new Marvell controller will only work with 25nm flash and it could be expensive.
The ADATA unit we tested at Computex used the same flash as the RealSSD C300, but it was also just an updated variant of the same C300 controller. The new models should be a new controller all together, but until we start seeing these drives in house there is no telling what company is going to go with what controller. Our heads are spinning just trying to figure this one out, but we know for certain that Crucial will be running the real deal next generation controller and not a slightly modified 2010 controller.
Every company we visited with a Marvell controller stressed that the new SATA 6G offering will bring "aggressive garbage collection". It's one thing to hear it from one company, but when everyone talks about it then something is a foot. As most of you know, TRIM commands are not passed along through RAID arrays and over time arrays get beaten up from data being deleted from the drives. For the last couple of years arrays needed to be broken and the individual drives cleansed. If the Team Marvell manufacturers manage to make do with what they are promising, the yearly cleaning cycle may be broken and Marvell controllers might be the way to go for high speed RAID arrays.
Intel and Hitachi
Intel and Hitachi are teaming up to conquer; well, maybe just take a piece of the pie in the enterprise sector. At CES we visited Hitachi and caught a glimpse of this partnership in physical form. Above we see the Hitachi UltraStar SSD400S, a SAS 6G SSD that Hitachi claims delivers around 535MB/s read speed.
The Hitachi drive is SAS, so it's enterprise only, but that doesn't mean we have to live with Postville Refresh only for 2011.
On the consumer side of things Intel is only talking about X25-M G3, AKA Postville Refresh. The big news here is higher capacities thanks to IMFT 25nm flash. Still around are the 80 and 160GB units, but you can now add 300 and 600GB capacity sizes to the list. Intel's ten channel controller design means that even though Intel is keeping SATA 3G for now, the drive will be very fast in real world applications. Don't expect big benchmark numbers, but look for G3 to burn up real world tasks.
Looking beyond G3 I wouldn't be surprised to see the enterprise SATA 6G controller turned into a speedy consumer drive. This would likely happen in Q4, but we are keeping our fingers crossed for a surprise from blue and white.
X25-E will also get a facelift. SLC flash will pass and eMLC will be the new flavor for 2011. Code named Lyndonville, X25-E will move to 100, 200 and 400GB capacity. From the looks of it Intel will be able to compete with current SandForce drives, but until they get serious about SATA 6G their SSD products will fall a generation behind SandForce and Marvell.
Toshiba? Yes! Toshiba....Welcome to left field with this one. The biggest surprise for me at CES 2011 came from Toshiba who demoed an enterprise drive using low cost 32nm eMLC. The new drive will be offered in 100, 200 and 400GB capacities. This is another SAS enterprise drive, but Toshiba has a strong consumer controller line.
The biggest benefit for Toshiba's consumer products is their garbage collection, some of the best we've seen to date. If Toshiba were to get serious about making a high speed, market leading consumer SSD, they could do so by retooling their enterprise drive.
We spoke with Toshiba about this, but the enterprise VP wasn't having anything to do with it. We'll be keeping an eye on Toshiba in 2011, but don't hold your breath for a consumer drive based on this controller that can deliver over 90K IOPS and 510MB/s read. Pitty...
Playing Both Sides
Above we see the official specs for the Corsair P3 256GB drive based on the Marvell controller. Corsair didn't say too much about SandForce in our meeting, but I don't look for them to walk away from that partnership. I don't look for others to walk away from SandForce either, but with so many new partners bringing drives based on Marvell controllers, that means we will see a fair number of companies playing both sides.
One company that we are going to pay very close attention to is Patriot. Patriot has a new SATA 6G drive called Wildfire, but the company has yet to determine if it will use a SandForce or Marvell controller. In all honesty, I look for many companies to come out with both a SATA 6G Marvell consumer and then when ready, a consumer SandForce SATA 6G drive.
What that will mean for the consumer is more competition in the market, so prices should drop rapidly and bundles / accessory packages increase in size. If you thought your choices were numerous in 2010, just wait for 2011 when we see nearly 2x the available SKU numbers for SSDs.
Then there are the SSD newcomers. Companies like Zalman just dipped their toe in the SSD waters at the end of 2010, but many more are eyeing a possible entry to the market. Antec thought about it, but didn't pull the trigger; the option is still on the table, though. SSDs are hot, hot, hot right now. Just look at what OCZ Technology is doing, they have all but gotten rid of their memory business and now fancy themselves as a diverse company led by SSD sales.
The year of the Rabbit - It may be fitting since this year computer technology will be dominated by SSDs; the year of the hyper speed SSD! - 2011 will bring nearly double the performance and double the capacity, while driving costs even lower than what we saw in 2010. There will be something for everyone; if you want up to 550MB/s from a single drive or prefer a single drive with up to 600GB of storage capacity, you will be able to get it this year.
There is another area that we have yet to talk about, though, one that several will like to know more about. But to be honest, I'm not in the know at this time about it. With so many new controllers available, you have to wonder what will happen with last year's designs. Could a budget 120GB SandForce SF-1200 product hit the market, say at a 150 USD price point? - The biggest obstacle to mass SSD adaption is clearly the high cost of ownership. If this were to happen and we start to approach the 1 Dollar per Gig area, then more consumers would get a taste of that sweet SSD feeling and then crave faster SATA 6G models.
Maybe we are just trying to pull a rabbit out of our 2011 New Years hat, but if it were to happen, and I'm not saying it will, but if it were, then 2011 could be the year everyone adapts to the technology.
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