SLC flash stores only one bit per cell, so it packs less capacity into a given space. But this type is used on enterprise products because it's better suited to both reading and writing data, and less prone to flaws that can reduce a chip's capacity over time. SandForce's controllers are designed to manage MLC chips so they last longer. Smart will use the SandForce controllers in enterprise SSDs built with its MLC flash chips.
Enterprises may eventually embrace MLC flash, especially in products such as midpriced x86 servers, where buyers concentrate on price, said TrendFocus analyst John Chen, who spoke at Diskcon. But the controller's ability to prevent chip degradation will be key to flash storage, he added. "I think it's all about the controller," Chen said. SandForce isn't alone in trying to leverage low-cost MLC silicon, with bigger vendors such as Marvell developing such controllers too, he said.
The next big step will be for more vendors to qualify their flash storage products for enterprise environments, a process that should bear fruit next year, Chen said.
Despite these technical concerns, next year should be a big one for enterprise flash. Most of the major enterprise storage vendors have put flash offerings on the market this year, and the partnership announced last year between Intel and Hitachi Global Storage Technologies is on track to deliver its first products in the first half of next year, said Dean Amini, director of enterprise product marketing at Hitachi GST. Intel already sells flash silicon for enterprise storage.
The companies plan to make flash products, in HDD form factors, that match the performance of Fibre Channel HDDs under any type of workload, according to Amini. A slide of technical goals showed they plan to offer advanced power management and MTBF (mean time between failures) of 2 million hours.
The enterprise flash business is in such an early stage that the dominant provider of chips, STEC, even welcomes competitors.
"The industry and the market is growing rapidly ... and I think adding another credible vendor, somebody that can pass the qualifications, will just increase the market even more," said Scott Stetzer, STEC's director of marketing for enterprise SSD products.
Diskcon concludes on Thursday.