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Switch to SSD 'for free'? Sandforce explains how

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Comment Fabless flash controller developer SandForce has let a pricing hint slip. It will reveal more of its plans and situation at the August 11-13 Flash Summit in Santa Clara. It may also be about to reveal its first supply deals.

SandForce emerged from stealth in April with NAND flash solid state disk (SSD) controller technology that used 2-bit multi-level cell flash and delivered pretty symmetric and fast read and write I/O: 30,000 IOPS and 250MB/sec with either reading or writing of 4KB data blocks.

It dealt with the limited write endurance of the flash chips by minimising the amount of written data with its DuraClass technology. The pitch was based on making cheap but limited life-cycle MLC flash practical for enterprise use, and so undercut single level cell (SLC) flash, which is faster and has a longer life than MLC flash.

Back in April it had evaluation technology and two products, but now pricing hints have emerged. The company is a bronze sponsor and exhibitor at the August Flash Summit in Santa Clara, and is busy hiring staff.

Productwise, SandForce has the SF-1200 mobile processor - processor being its term for controller - and the SF-1500 enterprise processor. These are both application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) with firmware.

The SF-1500 does 250MB/sec sequential read and sequential write using 128KB blocks of data. It does 30,000 random read and write IOPS with 4KB blocks. Sixteen flash devices, from virtually any flash supplier, can be used, making it possible for OEMs or system integrators to provide various capacity SandForce-controlled SSDs. SLC chips could be used, but that would negate the making-MLC-enterprise-class pitch.

The SF-1200 has pretty much the same bandwidth (250MB/sec read versus 200MB/sec write) but lower IOPS, doing 5,000 IOPS for random 4KB reading and writing.

Pricing hints have come from an article in Greentech Media, in which SandForce CEO Alex Navqui said SandForce SSD storage could be free if its total cost, acquisition and electricity supply costs over five years are compared with the similar costs of replaced hard drives over the same period. The amount of saved power cost would pay for the SandForce SSDs.

Navqui uses as a comparison a set of 240 73GB fast hard drives, which have a total storage cost/GB of $3.16 or $50,000 over five years. He says you only need nine SandForce SSDs to deliver the same IOPS and they have a 5-year energy cost of $250. Subtracting their cost from the HDD energy cost gives us $49,750, and dividing that by the number of SSDs (nine) gives us an SSD unit cost of $5,527. These will be the SF-1500 processors, with 2-bit flash chips added. We don't know the unit capacity of the SandForce-controlled SSDs.

SandForce processors are intended to be used by SSD suppliers who do not have or do not want their own in-house controller technology. Given that Seagate and SandForce share a board member, C S Park, and that Seagate has reaffirmed its intention to ship its own SSD this year, there is a fairly good likelihood that it could include a SandForce controller.

IBM provided a supporting quote when SandForce came out of stealth in April but it is questionable if IBM wants to become an SSD supplier. It is perhaps more likely that a flash chip supplier, such as Samsung, might use the SandForce technology and so be able to supply system suppliers such as IBM.

Looking at the Flash Summit programme, we notice that Xiotech's VP for Technology, Rob Peglar, is appearing in several forums. Xiotech announced SSD support in its Magnitude 3D storage arrays in 2006. It is possible that Peglar's appearance at the event may presage some kind of Xiotech SSD announcement.

The usual suspects - Intel, Micron, Numonyx, SanDisk, Samsung, STEC and others - will also be out and about at the Flash Summit, and we might well expect a mini-blizzard of flash announcements at the show.

It's noticeable that enterprise flash disk developer Pliant Technology does not have a presence at the Flash Summit. There were rumours of a summer announcement by the company, but nothing has come to pass and Pliant looks to be staying in stealth mode for a while longer. ®

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