Perspective on the Flash Memory Summit 2008

Posted by: Thom Denholm

A week of SSD, NAND questions and New Technology 

It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years since the invention of flash memory, but the 20-foot timeline documenting its milestones that was displayed at this year's Flash Memory Summit offered ample evidence of the progress the technology has made. Attendance at this third Summit once again broke records set by previous shows and the energy of the attendees was high. At more than 1,300 registered attendees, 2008 was at least 25% larger than 2007. Having been a sponsor since the show's inception, we can confirm that it was even more packed this year. Most of the keynote presentations spilled out of the main hall, and people were stacked up into the hallway trying to hear what was being said inside. The quality of the presentations once again proved worth the trip to Santa Clara, but it was obvious to everyone that the show is quickly outgrowing the Santa Clara Marriott. The unofficial theme this year appeared to be solid-state drives (SSD), but beyond the SSD buzz, there were many presentations on designing NAND-based products, software optimization of flash, future technologies, and other flash-related topics of interest. Datalight gave four presentations (Flash Interfaces 101), and organized a forum on using flash in embedded as well as a full-day "executive update." There were a couple of keynote addresses we found particularly interesting and entertaining: Dean Klein from Micron gave a speech entitled, "A Closer Look at NAND Flash." Highlights of Dean's keynote included a map of NANDs progress through the Gartner Cycle of Hype, in which he asserted that NAND is over the "peak of inflated expectations," heading down into the "trough of disillusionment." Klein jokingly referred to hard-drives several times as "rotating rust," and the address featured an entertaining series of video clips along the lines of Apple's Mac vs. PC ads, in which Hard Drive was escorted by Flash to a therapy session to talk about his sluggishness, forgetfulness, narcolepsy, and overeating (power consumption). Eli Harari from SanDisk gave a keynote called "Changing the World: The Flash Memory Revolution." Eli's speech was less humorous than Dean's, but no less interesting to listen to. He showed several timelines describing the evolution of flash applications, and a chart predicting that NAND demand will outstrip supply by 2011, allowing flash vendors to raise prices (!) and finally get a return on their investment in the technology. He also compared the progress of NAND density to Moore's law, showing that NAND is tracking far ahead of where Moore's law says it should be. He theorized that the next flash technology will be 3D NAND, and gave a fascinating demonstration of how it's built and how it works, including photographs of 3D NAND's unique architecture. Spansion showed their ecoRAM: basically flash in a DIMM form factor. Cool. And eco-friendly, apparently. This new class of flash promises to reduce the power requirements for large server applications, using an eighth of the energy of DRAM, with better reliability, and read performance fast enough to meet the rapid access requirements of large-scale server installations. Which highlights another key theme of the Summit: Power. How can flash help reduce global warming? Can SSDs make data centers run more economically? Uh, did I say "data centers?" Yes, surprise! While last year's Summit saw the invasion of the laptop, this year a significant portion of the sessions addressed opportunities in the Enterprise segment. But the "Big E" didn't totally eclipse the "Little e" (embedded). There is still a growing need for low power, high performance flash soldered onto boards and into removable cards for embedded systems. The embedded track had presentations ranging from the basics of flash interfaces and differences between NOR and NAND to complex design methodology and frequency sources for flash memory applications. Speaking of last year's Summit, where Hybrid Hard Drives (traditional hard disk drive with flash caching) battled SSDs for attention, whatever happened to the HHDs? The only sign of them we saw was a presentation from Seagate wherein they said there is still work to do, particularly on the software (i.e., Windows Vista). Our take overall? Industry insiders' perspectives are essential for long term planning and this show is the place to get them. But all that crystal-ball-gazing can be a bit out of phase with where customers are today. SSDs are interesting and undoubtedly will be a key component in many future designs, but the reality is that migration from NOR-only systems to those that include both NAND and NOR or just NAND continues to be the mainstay for today's designs. An analyst from IDC cashed a reality check on the SSD hype when he put up a slide showing relative market sizes of flash memory (big), hard disk drives (huge) and SSDs (tiny). While many flash manufacturers are in an oversupply situation on NAND, others have parts on allocation. The industry as a whole is looking for ways to reduce costs and keep (or get) fabs profitable. This causes lower volume, lower margin product lines to be discontinued, sometimes just as designs using them are about to go to market. Bottom line? The Flash Memory Summit provides a great opportunity to step outside our day-to-day reality and consider the possibilities promised by emerging technology. Next year's Summit is sure to be a must-attend event for gaining planning perspective. We hope to see you there! If you missed the Summit, presentations should be available soon at Bill's presentation on flash interfaces, complete with narration, is available now: Flash Interfaces 101

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