Why Israel is a hotbed for flash storage innovation

EMC deal for XtremeIO highlights Israel's highly-skilled IT workforce, tech success

At the same time EMC was in Israel trying to strike a deal to buy XtremeIO, NetApp and Dell were also there vying for the flash storage array maker's intellectual property.

EMC's acquisition of the NAND flash storage company followed a similar move by Apple when it purchased Israeli-based flash drive maker Anobit in January.

"Particularly in flash memory they have really good talent over there," said Ryan Chien, an analyst with market research firm IHS iSuppli.

Flash storage is at the forefront of technology powering current industry trends such as cloud services, virtualization and online transaction processing. Because of that, flash development is a red-hot industry, analysts said. That fact has not been lost on Israel.

Israel has long been a nation that draws in big corporate R&D facilities and acquisitions. Microsoft and Cisco both built their first non-U.S. R&D facilities there, for instance. Google has two R&D centers in Israel now; Intel has four. Intel also has two manufacturing facilities there that employ 7,000 workers. Motorola's largest development center is also located in Israel.

In 2010-2011, Israel was ranked No. 1 in the world in terms of the quality of its scientific research institutions by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It also ranked seventh in its capacity for innovation.

EMC itself has about 800 employees in Israel, part of an R&D center that includes VMware development. In 2010, Micron also purchased Numonyx, which operates a flash fabrication in Israel.

R&D in Israel
R&D centers in Israel (Source: State of Israel Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor)

In flash, software rules

When it comes to engineering NAND flash storage products, writing code to manage how the non-volatile memory is used is key, especially as the size of flash chips continues to shrink. (Smaller chips increase the likelihood of data errors as electrons leak through thinner and thinner silicon cell walls.) Controlling how data is laid out on flash chips also results in longer product life.

On top of managing the NAND flash itself, solid-state drive (SSD) systems need software that enables optimum performance in conjunction with I/O hungry applications and hard disk drives. For example, tiering technology migrates data from low-end disks to high-end disks to flash drives.

Israel has long been home to flash storage development. For example, USB flash drives were invented by the Israeli company M-Systems in partnership with IBM. M-Systems was bought out by flash drive maker SanDisk in 2006.

"EMC is looking at the NAND resources in Israel, scientists who can handle all the issues with lower-lithography NAND," Chien said.

In 2010, EMC hired Orna Berry -- formerly the chief scientist of Israel's Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor -- to be the general manager of its Center of Excellence (COE) facility in Beersheba, directly adjacent to Ben-Gurion University. The COE is responsible for R&D in areas such as security, high availability systems and flash memory and runs EMC's anti-fraud service for the company's worldwide user base.

The Israeli difference

Because of Israel's diminutive size and its location, technological innovation is more a matter of "life and death," Berry said. "Many of the technologies, if we don't invent them, we also [could not] buy them. It's a political issue. Consequently, we often need to be self-sufficient in certain technologies. On the other hand, being first to market often gives us an opportunity to have a place in the market."

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