Fibre Channel drives reputedly have higher margins than commodity and capacity-centric serial ATA (SATA) drives so any invasion of the Fibre Channel HDD space by flash SSDs could have severe profitability impacts on Seagate and Hitachi Data Systems (HDC) who make Fibre Channel drives.
Western Digital is protected from that by not making FC HDDs. However, a new interface for performance-centric HDDs is SAS (serial-attached SCSI) which is having a faster 6Gbit/s SAS II interface developed, doubling SAS drive interface speed from the current 3Gbit/s. It is generally supposed that the SAS interface will, over time, repkace the FC interface, currently running at 4Gbit/s for HDDs although SAN fabrics connecting FC storage arrays and servers are transitioning to 8Gbit/s. There is no expectation of 8Gbit/s HDD interfaces being developed.
Western Digital has a desktop SAS HDD product line which is expected to be developed into enterprise products. Flash memory supplier SanDisk is expected to add SAS interface SSDs to its current SATA SSDs. We might also expect STEC to add a SAS interface to its controllers and then the stage will be set for Western Digital to face flash SSD competition as well.
There is a race going on between HDD capacity and flash SSD capacity with cost/GB being one parameter, the number of IOs per second (IOPS) being a second, electricity needs a third, and write endurance being the fourth. Flash memory only has a finite number of write cycles before its performance degrades. Hard drives are not so affected. Flash SSD controllers need to compensate for the restricted write cycle life with wear-leveling algorithms to distribute the I/O writes equally, or as equally as possible, across the cells in a flash SSD.
It is expected that, as flash SSDs add more bits to their cells in multi-level cell (MLC) technology that cost/GB will go down and capacity will go up, a 4-level cell holding four times as much information as a single level cell.
Seagate is bringing out its own flash SSD line and has sued STEC for patent infringement; a suit which many commentators view as frivolous and which STEC is vigorously defending, having retained Los Angeles-based law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP to fight the suit. It is also reported that Seagate and STEC have talked about a potential acquisition which STEC dismissed.
Kingston Technology is readying its entry into the flash SSD area.
Kingston, SanDisk and Seagate are large and established companies. Their entry into the enterprise flash SSD market could represent disruption to STEC. If it wants to cash in on its current SSD kingpin status then now is the time. As soon as SAS II flash SSDs arrive from its competitors then its market position will be under attack. In fact it may face possibly the first real competition it has faced in its so far charmed life.
On the other hand this is a company that has played its technology and product cards well, very well indeed. It convinced EMC and that is no easy task. We should by no means expect STEC's sizzle to start shrinking any time soon.
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