The premium NVMe SSD market is poised to heat up again. Micron, Samsung, Toshiba and partners have 96-layer 3D TLC memory in production with products soon to follow using the new NVMe 1.3 standard. Phison and Silicon Motion have new controllers coming out of development for the new memory. The Phison PS5012-E12 (E12) and Silicon Motion, Inc. (SMI) SM2262EN offer manufacturers broad options to build next-generation SSDs that leave existing models in the dust.
Today we take a brief look at the two next-generation controllers, the specifications and test both using existing 64-layer flash in order to see the progress made since the previous generation models shipping today. Since January, the premium NVMe SSD market has been quiet. Samsung released the 970 series, Phison partners shipped E8 4-channel mainstream products and Silicon Motion swept them all with low-cost SM2262 SSDs from Adata, HP, and Mushkin.
For several months, we've wondered why more companies didn't release products with the SM2262 controller. At Computex in June, we learned that all new products would ship with the SM2262EN controller, an optimized version of the SM2262. Just days ago, we also learned more about the flash companies' plans to release 96-layer memory sooner than we initially expected. It seems that companies chose to wait to combine technology in a single product rather than making two new models in short order.
We've learned a lot about upcoming 96-layer flash over the last two weeks. Both Samsung and Toshiba increased the interface performance, the speed data travels from the controller to the flash. Micron has not released many details on its third-generation 3D flash memory interface but we expect to learn more next month at Flash Memory Summit.
The higher interface speed requires a controller designed to take advantage of the reduced latency and bandwidth available from Toggle3 and ONFi 4.x. Both next-generation controllers we're looking at today support existing, and new interface speeds. Both controller also support up to 8-channels to the the memory for high-speed performance. The SM2262EN supports up to four chip enables (CE) per channel but the E12 supports up to thirty-two CE with reference designs for M.2 2280, 22110, U.2 and add-in cards to meet different market demands and very high capacities.
Increasing SSD density requires a lot of DRAM to keep a large cache for the table map. Both next-generation controllers support both DDR3 and DDR4 but the manufacturer of the final products will choose the memory based on market conditions, performance and pricing targets. The ability to choose memory allows each manufacturer to target different markets with products turned for pricing considerations, or lower power consumption.
Although SMI has shipped a number of designs with low-density parity check (LDPC) error correction technology, the E12 is Phison's first high-performance 8-channel NVMe controller to use the technology. The E12 uses a refined LDCP code first introduced by the company on the E8 in early 2018. The advanced technology is imperative for future designs using 4-bit per cell memory (QLC).
A Closer Look
Today we have two early development drives from each company. The SMI SM2262EN reference design uses Intel 64-layer 3D memory. It's a 2TB drive using existing 64-layer memory technology. SMI has yet to finalize the firmware as of the time our sample arrived mid-June. The Phison PS5012-E12 sample uses Toshiba Toggle2 flash with a 400 MT/s interface, slower than the ONFi 3 flash on the SMI reference design. This is a 1TB sample with less capacity than the SM2262EN and running a slower flash interface speed.
We expect both controllers to ship with next-generation flash technology not available when our samples arrived. Some companies may choose to ship products with 64-layer memory, but with 96-layer memory reportedly shipping to customers, we expect retail products to use the faster design on premium SSDs.
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