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Western Digital opens door to flash

Needs 'appropriate opportunity'

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Comment Western Digital is open to entering the solid state drive (SSD) market when it presents "appropriate opportunity."

Richard Rutledge, Western Digital's SVP for marketing, clarified the position on SSDs. He set the scene thus: "Western Digital enters markets that exist, announces products when they are available, and runs a tight model with opportunities greater than resources such that we take a controlled, methodical, sequential, incremental approach to product portfolio expansion.

"We do not currently supply to either several platform categories [game console, car, phone] or product categories [SAS/FC-AL on 10K/15K, SSD]. This said, we know [and] understand each of these segments and are open to enter any [or] all of them when they present appropriate opportunity." As he said before there are two interesting SSD markets or value zones, a low-end one and a high-end one.

Low-end value zone

At the low-end Rutledge sees SSDs with prices less than $30 being used "in consumer handheld mobile platforms [phones, cameras]." They are also used in a quarter to a third of netbooks. He sees a new category developing between the two, christened a SmartBook and being a grown-up smart phone with a Linux/ARM platform base instead of the typically Wintel netbook. This SmartBook, a 'communitainment' device, is "the most interesting" part of the low-end SSD value zone.

The device would be in the $200-$300 price area, compared to the netbook's $300-$400 band, and have a larger 7-9 inch screen and keyboard than a smartphone and its 3-4 inch screen. A smartphone SSD typically has a single channel and 1 to 6 die (chips) he says. The smartbook would have a screen lid that folds down onto a keyboard base. Netbooks are larger still with 9-11 inch screens.

Rutledge emphasises that Western Digital understands the storage needs and the technologies involved in this value zone and it is obvious that Western Digital has looked long and hard and closely into it. It is thinking about entering the zone and competing with Silicon Motion and Intel.

High-end value zone

This includes the enterprise flash drive area with SSDs, typically STEC-supplied, augmenting fast Fibre Channel hard drives. Western Digital defines it as storage costing more than $199/drive.

Rutledge describes the three main players here: "STEC has been the 'availability' leader in traditional enterprise [SAS/FC-AL] via 8-channel SLC based products, and has SATA MLC [multi-level cell] too for client. Intel has recently become the 'performance' leader in advanced clients [SATA, 10-channel, MLC], and has SATA SLC [single level cell] too for entry server. Samsung has been the 'price' leader for advanced clients [SATA, 4-channels, MLC] and has SATA SLC too for boot [and] blade server."

It's clear that SSDs have a performance edge but a write speed and lifecycle limitation. Overall he characterises SSD as 'F' media, being fast at reads and fragile (in the wearing out sense) with hard drives being 'S' media - slow but safe with no endurance or retention issues.

Rutledge uses a car engine analogy to illustrate the market differences between flash and hard drives. NAND is good for 1 or 2 cylinder and V10+ configurations and has low cost, power and performance at one extreme and high cost, power and performance at the other.

Hard drives are good for V4, 6 and 8 configurations with mainstream cost, power and performance.

That's clear. Will Western Digital enter either flash market? It's not clear but don't rule it out, particularly from the smartbook area. ®

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