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SSDs maturing, but new memory tech still 10 years away

SSDs are more expensive than hard drives, but are more flexible and faster, attendees and speakers at Hot Chips say

By Agam Shah
August 26, 2013 06:23 AM ET

IDG News Service - Solid-state drive adoption will continue to grow and it will be more than 10 years before it is ultimately replaced by a new memory technology, experts said.

SSDs are getting more attractive as NAND flash gets faster and cheaper, as it provides flexibility in usage as a RAM or hard-drive alternative, said speakers and attendees at the Hot Chips conference in Stanford, California on Sunday.

Emerging memory types under development like phase-change memory (PCM), RRAM (resistive random-access memory) and MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM) may show promise with faster speed and durability, but it will be many years until they are made in volume and are priced competitively to replace NAND flash storage.

SSDs built on flash memory are now considered an alternative to spinning hard-disk drives, which have reached their speed limit. Mobile devices have moved over to flash drives, and a large number of thin and light ultrabooks are switching to SSDs, which are smaller, faster and more power efficient. However, the enterprise market still relies largely on spinning disks, and SSDs are poised to replace hard disks in server infrastructure, experts said. One of the reasons: SSDs are still more expensive than hard drives, though flash price is coming down fast.

"It's going to be a long time until NAND flash runs out of steam," said Jim Handy, an analyst at Objective Analysis, during a presentation.

Handy predicted that NAND flash will likely be replaced by 2023 or beyond. The capacity of SSDs is growing as NAND flash geometries get smaller, so scaling down flash will become difficult, which will increase the need for a new form of non-volatile memory that doesn't rely on transistors.

Many alternative forms of memory are under development. Crossbar has developed RRAM (resistive random-access memory) that the company claims can replace DRAM and flash. Startup Everspin is offering its MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM) products as an alternative to flash memory. Hewlett-Packard is developing memristor, while PCM (phase-change memory) is being pursued by Micron and Samsung.

But SSDs are poised for widespread enterprise adoption as the technology consumes less energy and is more reliable. The smaller size of SSDs can also provide more storage in fewer servers, which could cut licensing costs, Handy said.

"If you were running Oracle or some other database software, you would be paying license fee based on the number of servers," Handy said.

In 2006, famed Microsoft researcher Jim Gray said in a presentation "tape is dead, disk is tape, flash is disk, RAM locality is king." And people were predicting the end of flash 10 years ago when Amber Huffman, senior principal engineer at Intel's storage technologies group, started working on flash memory.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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