Solid State Storage: Will the Enterprise Fuel an Upheaval in the Embedded Space?


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An undisclosed number of years ago I was in the office of Alan Shugart, who was at that time the CEO of disk drive manufacturer Seagate Technology here in the throbbing metropolis of Scotts Valley, California. Shugart had previously been one of the pioneers at IBM on the team that developed the very first hard disk drive, a large portrait of which was on the wall of his office.

It was an enormous thing that looked to have been in a cabinet about eight feet long and six feet tall. On one end was a glass panel through which you could see a spindle that held possibly five or six platters. Beside the platters there was another vertical shaft that carried the arm with the read/write head, and attached to that was a rubber air hose to produce an air cushion to keep the head from physically contacting the disk surface. The arm could be withdrawn from one platter and moved up or down and then swung in again to access another platter. The whole monstrous thing had a capacity of five Megabytes—don’t ask about the access speed.

Shugart said that at the time the other people in the company thought his team was crazy. “What would anybody do with five Megabytes?” Well now, of course, we know. We carry around iPods that have small rotating media containing multiple Gigabytes. That’s if we’re old codgers, of course. The newer devices have solid state storage—NAND flash.

Now flash memory is nothing new. It has been around—especially in embedded and mobile devices—for years. But its use has until recently been confined to relatively modest data storage tasks. Recently, however, its use for storing ever more data has been growing, and with the incorporation of things like SATA interfaces on small embedded modules, flash memory has taken on an increasing role as a solid state drive (SSD) for embedded applications. These modules  realize they now have a larger capacity, low-power, small, rugged and reliable storage medium that can be used to accommodate those newer applications that suddenly have more data they need to store.

At the recent Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara, the main concern of the vendors there appeared to be to move flash memory into the turf of enterprise storage. Attendees were flocking like packs of teenage Hannah Montana fans to sessions on performance, benchmarks, storage for enterprise and data centers and more, all lured by the promise of truly vast sales of NAND and controller silicon when the ubiquitous hard drive is pushed further to the sidelines. And truly, there were examples aplenty of SSDs with hundreds of Gigabytes of capacity and impressive performance.

Why should such a development targeted at the enterprise be of interest to the embedded community?” Just remember: “What would anybody do with five Megabytes?” What would an embedded controller or a portable medical device do with 280 Gigabytes? At the moment I’m sure I don’t know, but I do know that someone will find a compelling use for such capacity if it fits the size, weight, power, performance, ruggedness and capacity needs of the application. And applications tend to evolve to overtax the capacity of the available hardware.  

The conquest of the enterprise space by the flash-based SSD vendors can only be a good thing as the resulting cost reductions and technology improvements proliferate and become attractive to embedded developers. Along with the rush to the enterprise, we are already seeing numerous examples of higher-end flash storage appearing in form factors and with connectors that are clearly aimed at the needs of embedded systems.

And yet, this level of storage is but one element of some rather interesting advances that have yet to come together in actual systems. We are on the threshold of PCI Express 3.0, USB 3.0, faster multicore processors, connectivity such as Intel’s LightPeak optical technology and more. And we haven’t even mentioned some of the things that are waiting in the wings behind flash, such as phase change memory. Get out the popcorn. It should be quite a show.