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Will the titans of storage decide to flash their bits?

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Conclusions we can draw

One obvious conclusion is that drive suppliers need their own in-house controller operation. Five of the moves listed above involve that activity. None of the flash fab operators have bought drive controller companies, with the recent exception of Hynix which bought Link A Media Devices (LAMD) in June. This is a potential move by the other three flash foundry owners Samsung, Toshiba and Micron.

A second conclusion is that server flash drive suppliers need caching software to load, and sometimes share, hot data into the flash drives. LSI has its CacheCade SW here and STEC has developed its own caching SW. TMS is working with Canada-based Nevex to use its CacheWorks SW. We note that Dell is developing its caching software, Hermes, using its RNA Networks acquisition, and EMC is also developing VFCache caching software integrated with its FAST array data tiering SW. NetApp has said it will cache data from its arrays in server flash cache and will need SW to do that.

None of the flash foundry owners have bought drive caching software companies and this is another potential acquisition avenue for them, if they want to supply more than a raw SSD for servers.

What should disk spinners do?

If disk manufacturers are serious about getting into the flash drive business then they have to have their own controller operation. Toshiba does. Seagate has bought DensBits for that reason. Western Digital is out in the relative controller cold with its mostly embedded SSD business. It needs to develop or buy in technology if it is to expand out of that niche.

This is a pressing issue as cheaper 3-bit per cell flash (TLC) is coming and advanced controller functionality is needed to turn its raw relatively useless working life into a product that will last for five years or so. Not having such a controller means you can't ship TLC-based drives and competitors that can will undercut you on pricing.

Secondly, the only way to get certainty of flash chip supply and intimate knowledge of flash chips, so your controller can make them perform fast and for a long time, is by having a flash fab relationship. Money is the seal on such alliances. Arguably Samsung and Seagate need to build on their alliance and have an investment go from one to the other to make the relationship as solid as it can be and incentivise both parties.

Toshiba has its investment in flash array system supplier Violin Memory. Samsung has its deal with Seagate flash drive competitor Fusion-io; although Seagate is not in the PCIe flash card market segment which Fusion-io dominates. Where is Western Digital? Out in the cold again.

Are disks the new tape and flash the new disk?

Of course, WD has been involved in a monumentally complicated Hitachi GST acquisition, and HGST ships Intel-based SSDs. This acquisition will have taken up huge amounts of exec brain power. Now that is approved and underway them it needs to point some execs' brains towards flash and get itself a flash controller company and and an investment in Hynix or Micron, either directly or through HGST, if the regulator-imposed dual and separate WD-HGST operation model permits that.

Flash fab and flash drive consolidation

If the direction of the industry is consolidation across the flash fab and flash drive sectors then it is even more important for the disk drive manufacturers to get into bed with flash foundry suppliers. Toshiba is there already with a foot in both camps, flash fabrication and HDD manufacture. Samsung, Micron and Hynix make their own flash drives and will need to be courted by potential suitor/investors saying what they will bring to the party. All three would surely appreciate the channel strength that disk drive manufacturers would bring to the party.

A third point is that server flash drive suppliers need caching software. Toshiba has indirect access via SanDisk, its foundry partner. Samsung has indirect access via Fusion-io. If Seagate and Western Digital are serious about shipping server cache then they need caching software too. Possible companies they could tie up with include Nevex, Proximal Data and VeloBit.

Seagate and WD are led by tough, seasoned executive teams who have survived the great HDD industry consolidation wars. They know that HDDS easily brushed aside online tape drives and are still brushing aside backup tape drives. They know that a faster storage media can kick out an old one and utterly change its business model. Been there; done that. No tape drive and library vendor has managed to become a successful disk array vendor, not one.

Now the faster storage medium threat faces the spinning bit device vendors. Are disks the new tape and flash the new disk?

Will these tough, clear-sighted and strong-minded executive teams read the runes, understand the history and the threats and adopt and adapt solid-state, become flash bear-huggers, do a half-hearted adoption and get by-passed, or stick their heads in the sand and wait for their asses to be kicked?

So far Toshiba is furthest along the bear-hugging road, Seagate is some way behind and, further behind still unless there are internal developments we don't know about, comes Western Digital.

Where will they be in five years time? El Reg thinks they will be charging full tilt down the flash highway, not ceding an inch to the other flash product makers. We'll see. ®

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