SandForce seeks to improve SSD controllers

Newcomer SandForce delivers solid-state drive (SSD) controller it claims can lower cost and improve reliability for NAND Flash.

SandForce Inc., a silicon provider for solid-state drive (SSD) OEMs, emerged from stealth mode today with a line of processors for SSD controllers it claims will improve the reliability and endurance of NAND Flash-based drives.

SandForce claims its SF-1000 SSD is compatible with all major single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level cell (MLC) Flash memory vendors. The SF-1000 features a 3 Gbps native SATA host interface that connects up to 512 GB of commodity NAND flash memory and delivers 30,000 IOPS and 250 Mbps performance while reading or writing 4 KB data blocks. The controller also allows SAS connectivity through third-party bridges. The processors will be available for the enterprise storage and mobile computing markets.

The controller will be available to OEMs later this month, and SandForce expects SSDs that use its controllers to ship by the end of the year.

SandForce's goal is to help resolve reliability issues that – along with price – have limited SSDs use in enterprise storage.

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"The billion dollar question is: How can you use commodity Flash reliably in the enterprise?" said Thad Omura, SandForce's vice president of marketing.

SandForce claims the controller's error correction (ECC) and redundant array of independent silicon elements (RAISE) technologies improve disk failure rates by 110x without limiting the number of reads and writes per given time period, or forcing storage administrators to use DRAM cache to boost the SSD.

"For SSDs, the secret sauce for success is in the controller," said Dave Reinsel, vice president for the storage and semiconductors group at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "While the Flash manufacturer and type [SLC and MLC] are important, without an advanced controller, little differentiation in performance will occur between SSDs."

Omura said Flash controllers released by competing silicon competitors Marvell Technology Group Ltd. and Silicon Motion Technology Corp. attempt to extend their endurance and lifecycles by adding DRAM cache, limiting the amount of writes per day and overprovisioning. He said SandForce's "being very smart" when the controller writes to the Flash memory is a key part of the company's technology. "We compensate for a lot of those Flash-related reliability and endurance-related issues with hardware and processing element automation," Omura said.

SandForce claims its controller will allow the widespread use of MLC in the enterprise. MLC is cheaper than SLC Flash.

"If enterprises could rely on MLC technology to run their businesses, it would open up a gigantic market opportunity for SandForce and similar companies," said Jeff Janukowicz, IDC's research manager for hard disk drive components and SSDs. "If all of [SandForce's] claims turn out to be true, there certainly is a pretty good market opportunity out there."

IDC forecasts a 171% CAGR for enterprise and PC SSD shipments from 2007 to 2012, to more than 40 million units shipped by 2012.

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