Solid-state disk will go mainstream in 3, 2, 1...

Solid-state disks cost about $3.45 per gigabyte, hard drives about $0.38 per gigabyte

Solid-state disk, once considered a niche technology for ruggedized, industrial and military applications, is on its way to the mainstream. This is partly because of SSD benefits, which include performance, power efficiency, ruggedness and a lightweight, compact size. But other developments have also come into play, including technology and market developments that have begun to help this technology overcome its pitfalls -- namely capacity, reliability and price.

Because SSD is based on NAND flash memory chip technology, it has no moving parts, which makes it faster and less prone to mechanical failure than hard disk drives. Today, costs are shrinking faster than ever, thanks to market growth, new technology developments and vendors working overtime to accelerate their SSD development.

For instance, Intel has been working since early this year to turn around its troubled flash memory business, which has been hit hard by decreased consumer spending on MP3s, phones and other devices that use flash memory. To combat those losses, it announced plans to accelerate the introduction of higher-density NAND flash chips for enterprise storage arrays.

So, the question is not whether but when SSD will go mainstream. There are two main application areas where enthusiasm is growing about SSD: notebook computers and enterprise storage. According to IDC, SSD unit shipments will increase at 76 per cent from 2007 to 2012, driven by the notebook, ultrasmall notebook and enterprise storage spaces. Revenues will grow at a 70 per cent compound annual growth rate in that time period, to over US$5 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, per-gigabyte prices in the SSD notebook market will decline 44 per cent from 2007 to 2012.

The Notebook Wars

Currently, SSDs from the likes of Toshiba, Samsung and Micron can be found in notebooks from vendors such as IBM/Lenovo, Apple, HP, Dell and Toshiba. According to Krishna Chander, an analyst at iSuppli, 2008 is an introductory phase, a time for resellers, consumers and suppliers to watch what happens when SSD rubber hits the road. He sees SSD notebooks becoming mainstream in the 2011-2012 time frame. By 2011, he says, SSD will achieve 27 per cent penetration in notebooks, increasing to 35 per cent in 2012.

The two drivers for the SSD boom in notebooks are capacity and price. Currently, average capacities in available notebooks hover at 64GB, but the two largest manufacturers of NAND flash memory are already moving to larger capacities. Toshiba began shipping a US$2,999 notebook based on its own 128GB SSD in June and Samsung has promised to ship 128GB SSDs to hardware makers by the third quarter. Samsung has also said it will release a 256GB SSD in 2009.

Meanwhile, Intel has announced a 32-gigabit flash chip, produced via a joint venture with Micron. It will ship in the second half of 2008, and Intel plans to quickly move the chip into solid-state drives in the 80GB to 160GB range, according to Jon Stokes, a senior editor of the Ars Technica Web site.

At the current capacities, mainstream users will be slow to adopt SSD devices this year, Chander says. Things will change when notebooks transition past the 100GB level, though, and by 2011, Chander sees average capacities at 200GB, increasing to 350GB in 2012.

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Mary Brandel

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