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Apple's Mac move could spur PCIe flash flurry in other notebooks, desktops

PCIe flash storage tech in MacBook Air is 45% faster than previous generations

June 11, 2013 03:24 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple was first to use Intel's Thunderbolt I/O interface on laptops. The company also chose to create its own version of a hybrid drive for Macs rather than use one of several all-in-one offerings available from third party vendors.

So when Apple Monday announced another first -- that the new MacBook Air now comes with native PCIe flash storage technology -- some industry pundits speculated that other hardware makers will follow suit.

Last week, Sony announced that in June it will begin selling the VAIO Pro 13 laptop with a high-speed PCIe SSD.

"It's coming," said Joseph Unsworth, research vice president for NAND Flash & SSD at Gartner.

Michael Yang, an analyst at memory and storage research firm IHS iSuppli, said that while Apple's move is more evolutionary than revolutionary (PCIe flash cards for servers have been around for years), the addition of native PCIe flash in the Mac Pro and MacBook Air "officializes" the technology for the masses.

Mini PCIe spec

At least one other system manufacturer plans to produce a PCIe-flash based system later this year, according sources.

Gregory Wong, the founder and principal analyst at Forward Insights, said with new flash specifications emerging, more mobile devices will be able to take advantage of the performance PCIe flash offers.

For example, Intel and Plextor are working on Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF) SSDs that will use a mini-PCIe connector. Plextors NGFF SSD measures just 22mm by 44mm in size and connects to a computers motherboard through a PCIe 2.0 x2 interface.

"Intel recognizes that [there] is a future in PCIe  especially in desktops and notebooks, which is why, in part, we released the 910 series of SSDs. We will continue to look at opportunities in that market in the future," an Intel spokesman wrote in a reply to Computerworld.

The NGFF form factor boards will be smaller than of today's standard half-height expansion cards.

Wong expects samples of NGFF PCIe-based flash to be out later this year, with shipments ramping up next year.

I think they're for higher end devices at the moment, Wong said.

The cost of flash has plummeted in recent years. Once a luxury, solid state drives (SSDs) now sell for under $1 per gigabyte.

Today, most desktop and laptop manufacturers offer flash in the form of a SATA-connected SSD option in their systems. Once an expensive upgrade, vendors such as Apple charge about $100 for a 128GB SSD in a MacBook Pro. The upgrade provides a significant performance boost over hard drives.

PCIe-based flash takes solid-state performance to new levels.

Serial ATA, the most common interface for consumer NAND flash products, communicates through a high-speed serial cable over two pair of conductors. PCIe uses a switch architecture, which has multiple end points to allow the sharing of one endpoint with multiple end devices, according to IHS analyst Fang Zhang.

For example, Apple's Mac Pro will boast 1.25GBps reads and 1.0GBps writes. The best consumer SATA III SSDs today offer about 550MB/sec speeds, or about half that of PCIe flash.

"The benefits to a professional user is obvious and gives Apple more bragging rights in the art and publishing segment where it has been traditionally strong," Yang said.

The flash storage in the MacBook Air is now up to 45% faster than the previous generation. The MacBook Air is available with up to 512GB of flash, and, according to AnandTech, has performance that approaches a mind-blowing 800MB/sec throughput.

The 11-in MacBook Air model comes standard with twice the capacity of previous models - 128GB -- but still starts at starts at $999.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said Apple has already proven it can to a better job than other vendors at integrating solid-state storage with an operating system.

In fact, Apple is the number one consumer of flash technology, according to IHS.

And, Gottheil said, Apple never misses an opportunity to upsell.

"At the higher end of their notebook line they sure want to look for every possible excuse for people to spend the kind of dollars they ask for those things," Gottheil said. "So assuming the power requirements are manageable for a laptop... yeah, they'll throw everything into their top of the line notebooks."

Computerworld's Ken Mingis chats with Keith Shaw about his impression of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, in which the company announced iOS 7, a new desktop OS and new MacBook Air and Mac Pro models.

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, send e-mail to lmearian@computerworld.com or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS.

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