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Hitachi GST to OEM Intel-based SSDs

Intel bags Japanese disk drive giant

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Intel has won Hitachi Global Storage Technologies as an OEM seller of its flash-based solid state drive technology. The two companies will jointly develop and deliver enterprise-class SAS and Fibre Channel interface products for sale to storage and server suppliers.

Up until now STEC has made the running in supplying SSD product, particularly FC-interface product, to storage array vendors as they follow EMC's ground-breaking lead with its STEC-supplied Enterprise Flash Drives in its top-end Symmetrix arrays. The great promise of SSD technology is that it can deliver much, much faster access to data than hard drives while requiring less energy to do so and having greater resistance to mechanical shocks.

The downside is that writing data takes longer than reading it, that the numbers of times flash can be written to is limited compared to HDDs, and that its costs are too high. The flash industry is convinced that these obstacles can be overcome with a combination of increased capacity through smaller process technology, and better management from improved controller technology.

Combating these problems will make flash-based SSDs more attractive to server and storage vendors faced with increasing appetites for data from servers running rising numbers of virtual machines against a background of limited electricity supply and energy cost consciousness.

Virtual clean sweep

Seagate, the world's number one hard disk drive manufacturer, has made no secret of its SSD supply intentions with a 2009 launch publicly pencilled in for its first product. It will use commodity-supplied NAND flash chips with its own controller technology, partially based on LSI components. The number two in the industry, Western Digital, has recently said it is open to becoming a supplier of SSD technology. Now HGST, number 3 in the global HDD industry, is committed to supplying SSD product as well with Intel as its exclusive supplier of NAND chips and technology in this enterprise.

Toshiba, another hard disk drive supplier, is already in the flash business as is Samsung. Fujitsu is the now the stand-out.

Intel and HGST are also signing a research and development cost-sharing deal. Intel's NAND flash chips come from a joint-venture with Micron, Intel Micron Flash Technologies. This makes 32nm chips which are used in Intel's recently announced X25 line of SSD products.

Vertical integration

Previously it has been thought that Intel was distancing itself from the flash business, beset by over-supply of NAND chips, by setting up joint ventures such as IMFL and so offloading its flash foundry assets.

Now the situation can be read differently with both Intel and Micron - which has its own PCI-e connected SSD product developments complementing the HGST/Intel SAS and FC-interface SSDs - looking to benefit from their private supply of NAND chips in a classic vertically-integrated business model.

Intel looks set to rival Samsung in this regard.

It could be expected that both HGST and Intel intellectual property (IP) is used in the SSD controller technology as HGST will have IP concerning error correction and detection and other matters relating to receiving, buffering, and sending data to the spinning platters within a hard drive, that are relevant to the same processes concerning data I/O to NAND chips.

Intel's Randy Wilhelm, its VP and GM for NAND solutions, confirmed the main points, saying: "The new solid-state drives for the enterprise include a number of architectural breakthroughs and improve performance and energy usage models that will change enterprise computing. Intel and Hitachi GST share a common objective in delivering SAS/FC products based on solid-state technology that will help enterprise customers meet the skyrocketing demands for performance while reducing space, power and cooling costs."

The first HGST/Intel products are expected in early 2010. ®

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