Analyst: Intel’s New Flash Cache Negates SSD Performance Edge

Turbo memory is returning in 2010, says chipmaker Intel.  Intel’s original Turbo Memory, which first debuted in 2006, was less than well received.  While it shipped millions of units by Intel’s own estimates, reviews of the product were lukewarm.  Armed with new drivers and a new plan, this time around Intel believes it has what it takes to achieve a much greater success.

Intel’s upcoming Turbo Memory successor, Braidwood, will consist of NAND flash module residing on “5 Series” motherboards (used with the upcoming Westmere 32 nm processors) and serve as a cache for all reads and writes.  Capacities will be approximately 4GB to 16GB, and the cost increase will be approximately $10 to $20 per system, according to analyst Jim Handy, who authored a recent report on Braidwood.  The technology is set to launch in the first quarter of 2010, though it may be delayed.

Some former skeptics of Turbo Memory have become Braidwood believers.  Some are even going as far as to say that it could send the burgeoning SSD market reeling.  Mr. Handy is among those convinced that the new product will trouble solid state drive markers.  He points out that the new cache uses SLC (single level cell) NAND, which is approximately a quarter of the cost of the DRAM traditionally used in caches.  Meanwhile, it provides better performance than most solid state drives, which use the cheaper, but lower performance MLC (multi-level cell) NAND.

He states, “The move to NAND in PCs will boost the NAND market, soften the SSD and DRAM markets and pose problems for those NAND makers who are not poised to produce ONFi (open NAND flash interface) NAND flash.”

Traditionally, performance has been the strongest selling point of SSDs.  Other benefits include lower power consumption and increased reliability over hard disc drives.

If the SSD market suffers, Intel could be hurting itself.  Intel currently makes two relatively well selling drives — the X25-M and the X25-E.  The company, however, disagrees with Mr. Handy’s analysis.

Intel responded to the analyst’s remarks, stating, “It’s not just the performance, but also the added reliability…[SSDs] can help facilitate versus a hard drive. We see a long life ahead for SSDs, and won’t stop inventing a variety of other technologies that make computers faster and/or more energy efficient.”

However, Mr. Handy counters, “If you really get down to what makes consumers buy SSD, the reliability issue is not something they often cite as reason [for] spending extra money on an SSD.”

According to Mr. Handy current SSD makers — Toshiba, Samsung, Hynix, Micron — as well as DRAM suppliers will be most effected.  He believes that if SSDs no longer offer significantly superior performance, few will buy them for their improved reliability and lower power consumption, when hard drive power consumption is already low in comparison to other system components and most drives are already relatively reliable.

He concludes, “Intel has got a very good [SSD] product. But, they view additional layers of NAND technology in PCs as inevitable. They don’t think SSDs are likely to take over 100% of the PC market, but they do think Braidwood could find itself in 100% of PCs.”

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