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Could NAND flash kill DRAM in PCs?

The right balance of NAND, DRAM and an HDD yields better results than DRAM and HDDs, study finds

July 18, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The DRAM industry faces a serious threat from NAND flash memory in its largest market: PCs. That's according to a new study just released by the market research firm Objective Analysis.

After reviewing a "wide range of DRAM and NAND configurations," as well as nearly 300 industry-standard PC benchmarks, the researchers concluded that even at today's prices, a dollar's worth of NAND flash improves PC performance more than adding a dollar's worth of DRAM.

"Over time, the price/performance gap between these two technologies will widen, driving NAND to become the memory of choice in the PC," said Jim Handy, the author of the study. "Once [system manufacturers] and end users discover this fact, PC DRAM capacities will stop growing."

The latter will lead to continuing declines in DRAM revenues, faster DRAM market consolidation, and the eventual rise of a fabless DRAM market, Handy added.

The study bolsters findings by several university researchers and data center managers who say NAND is more likely to displace a computer's DRAM than its hard disk drives.

"An appropriate balance of NAND, DRAM, and an HDD yields superior performance per dollar to a simple DRAM/HDD system," Handy said. "A well-designed NAND/DRAM combination brings SSD-like performance to a system at little or no price increase over a standard system based on the conventional DRAM-plus-HDD platform."

The market research firm iSuppli says that the market for DRAM changed direction abruptly in 2011, and fell more severely than anticipated. At the same time, NAND flash prices have continued to drop.

Worldwide DRAM revenue in 2011 is expected to decline 11.8%, from $40.3 billion in 2010 to $35.5 billion, iSuppli stated in a report.

"The double-digit drop represents a stark reversal of the 77.5% increase in DRAM revenue in 2010 compared to 2009," iSuppli stated. "The next several years after 2011 also will be turbulent for DRAM revenue."

At the same time, the worldwide NAND flash bit supply is expected to increase 79.3% year over year in 2011, according to DRAMeXchange.

Objective Analysis' study, "How PC NAND Will Undermine DRAM," includes 50 figures that graphically depict the nature of the NAND/DRAM trade-off, along with forecasts based on this information that illustrate its impact upon both the DRAM and NAND markets. This study can be ordered online.

"DRAM makers will have to do some serious thinking about their future," Handy said. "Since the middle-1990s, the market has consolidated from 17 important players down to seven, and when PCs move to NAND, the pace of this consolidation will increase."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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