Here's a Flash: Solid-State Storage Is Overtaking Rotating Memory - InformationWeek

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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
3/13/2007
01:45 PM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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Here's a Flash: Solid-State Storage Is Overtaking Rotating Memory

Intel has announced its first solid-state drive, a storage device that uses NAND flash memory instead of those oh-so-old-fashioned (and oh-so-fragile) spinning platters in traditional hard-disk drives. It's an idea with a lot of advantages (although price isn't yet one of them). But we'll all be considering flash-based replacements for our laptop hard drives. It's just a question of whether i

Intel has announced its first solid-state drive, a storage device that uses NAND flash memory instead of those oh-so-old-fashioned (and oh-so-fragile) spinning platters in traditional hard-disk drives. It's an idea with a lot of advantages (although price isn't yet one of them). But we'll all be considering flash-based replacements for our laptop hard drives. It's just a question of whether it's next year or the year after.Intel's device, the Z-U130, will come in 1-, 2-, 4-, and 8-gigabyte sizes, but Intel seems a little bit confused about the market it's going after. On the one hand, the obligatory "tastes great, less filling" quote in the announcement press release came from Randy Wilhelm, vice president and general manager of Intel's NAND Products Group. He said that "solid state drive technology offers myriad benefits when compared to traditional hard disk drives."

But on the other hand, the Z-U140 comes with USB 1.1 and 2.0 interfaces. What am I missing here? Traditional hard drives don't come with USB interfaces. I suspect what Intel's aiming at is embedded devices, or on-the-motherboard installations to drive the ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive features in Microsoft Vista. As far as I'm concerned, that's a detour. I'm looking for a flash-based hard-drive replacement.

Such a thing already exists, so Mr. Wilhelm and his company have lost the race to produce the first one of those. Samsung started selling its Q30 laptop with a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD) last year in Korea. (Samsung doesn't sell laptops in the U.S.) The SSD comes packaged just like a 2.5-in. mobile hard drive (see some pictures here), plug-compatible. Cool.

The capacity may seem like a giant leap backward, but I just spent the weekend cleaning out the basement, and I am reminded (because I threw out several old PCs) of what you could do on a 4GB hard drive -- one machine was set up as an NT server running Lotus Domino 6. Ah, for the dear days gone by. We didn't think then that NT was exactly lean and mean, but the more contemporary, porcine Microsoft Vista requires a 20GB drive with 15GB free. Still, you could easily run Vista plus whatever else you wanted on a 32GB SSD.

And you might want to, because it would run faster. Quicker reads and writes are one of the reputed advantages of SSDs, along with lower power consumption that extends your battery life and an ability to laugh at misfortunes that would render a rotating drive inoperable, like being dropped. (PC World reviewed the Korean Q30 last summer and found that while the machine was incredibly shock-resistant, battery life was extended only about 9 per cent.)

The real kicker, though, is the cost. With rotating drives for laptops going for $2 a gigabyte, flash memory at $30 a gigabyte made the 32GB SSD impractical when Samsung announced it early last year. But now the price of NAND flash memory is in freefall even as the manufacturers are queuing up to sell SSDs: TDK announced a 32GB SSD last fall, and when SanDisk unveiled its 32GB entry in January the company estimated it would add $600 to the price of a laptop, or about $19 a gigabyte.

But just today SanDisk announced a new version of its SSD with a serial ATA (SATA) interface -- still 32GB, but only $350 wholesale (more, of course, to us retail customers). As prices for flash continue to come down this year surely I'll be able to get an SSD for $150 pretty soon, and in a laptop, or as the boot drive in a desktop PC, it just might goose Vista performance enough to be worth it.

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