Flash memory set to benefit from mobile Internet explosion

NAND also expected to expand into data centers to help boost performance and data access

Look for NAND technology to thrive as the world becomes ever more interconnected through mobile devices and data centers seek to become more efficient, or "green."

From wireless handhelds to cameras, tablets and servers, NAND flash technology will be embedded in billions of devices over the next 10 years, says Sanjay Mehrotra, co-founder and president flash memory vendor SanDisk. And, as the number of devices using NAND technology increase, the functionality and security of applications embedded in flash chip controllers will significantly improve, he added.

"Flash will enable things people couldn't even imagine," Mehrotra said.

Like traditional spinning hard disk drives, storage capacities of NAND-based products such as SDcards and solid state drives (SSD) have grown exponentially over the past 10 to 15 years.

For example, SanDisk's latest embedded storage chip, the iNAND , holds 32GB -- it's first NAND offering, a CF card released in 1995, could store up to 4MB of data. Meanwhile, Samsung recently unveiled 64GB MoviNAND and 32GB microSD cards .

"I remember when we launched our first 1GB product back in 2000. It was a compact flash card that cost $1,000," said Mike Wong, a spokesman for SanDisk.

Today, SanDisk's 32GB SD card can be had for about $95 -- offering 32 times the capacity at one-tenth the price.

Over the last year, about 1.21 billion cellular phones were sold around the world, according to Gartner Inc. The Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm is projecting that the market will grow by 11% to 13% this year. Gartner also projects that sales of smartphone devices will grow by 46% this year to 172.4 million units.

Steve Weinger, director of NAND flash marketing at Samsung, the world's largest supplier of NAND flash memory chips, noted that while smartphones are the fastest growing piece of the hand-held market, the devices today are only a small portion of the overall business. Thus the expected explosion in sales of the devices will likely be a key to the growth levels of NAND technology, he said.

"The world is becoming this social network-connected world. Everybody wants some way of getting onto the Internet from any place at any time," Weinger added. "That's where flash has so much growth potential."

Weigner also noted that the latest operating system technologies, such as Google's Chrome OS, include features created specifically to support flash memory and its faster I/O throughput requirements. Tablet-specific operating systems from Apple and Microsoft - along with myriad Linux-based platforms -- will predominantly be driven to take advantage of NAND flash products, he added.

"NAND's going to give you the storage capacity, the lower power consumption and the durability you need," Weinger said. "These things are hand-held devices that are going to be dropped, and you'll need the durability of NAND."

Weinger did note that NAND-based flash storage capacity is unlikely to continue doubling annually as it has in recent years.

As NAND's geometry shrinks in size, electrons move closer together and the charges that allow data to be stored in cells in the substrate material leak through cell walls causing data loss and errors, he explained. To deal with the data corruption, developers must create more and more sophisticated error correction software and therefore increase development cycles, Weinger said.

Today, the workhorse of NAND flash memory products is 32 nanometer (nm) lithography, or flash memory circuitry that is 32nm in width. All of the largest producers of NAND flash, including Micron and Intel , unveiled flash memory products with geometries in the 23nm to 27nm range over the past month.

Weigner predicted a longer development phase for the next generation of products with lower geometries.

At the same time, density will continue to increase at a fast pace as there are more and more bits stored per flash memory cell, and the number of boards contained in a device increases.

Solid state drives (SSD) today come with flash memory boards embedded with flash chips on both sides. Weinger said he expects to see multiple boards in future devices as well as an increase in the number of bits stored in flash memory cells. Today, three bits per cell are stored in multi-level cell NAND products.

Experts say that future generations of servers, laptops and netbooks will be more likely to use NAND-based PCIe cards rather than the SSDs used in most systems today. SSDs mimic hard disk drives and their communcations interfaces, which are typically either SAS in servers and SATA in PCs and laptops. The newer PCIe technology eliminates some of the bottlenecks that can slow SSDs.

For example, OCZ recently announced its highest capacity Z-Drive R2 , a flash drive which plugs directly into a PCI Express slot and offers up to 2TB of capacity and has data transfer rates of 1.4Gbit/sec.

That compares with a hard drive serial ATA interface, which currently offer 3Gbit/sec throughput. Recently, vendors began offering began offering 6Gbit/sec SATA interfaces.

It is in the data center where Weinger and others believe solid state drives will lead to the most revolutionary change over the next decade.

As organizations seek to create greener, more energy efficient infrastructures, solid state drives will be a natural fit, Weinger said. In addition, SSDs are becoming more popular in data centers as corporate users require faster storage mediums for streaming video and trading platforms.

"You'll see a major change in way data centers are constructed because of carbon footprint," Weinger said. "As they start building new data centers from ground up, flash memory will be significant part in terms of the speed and data access which will be needed as world becomes more connected."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld . Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian , or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

Read more about storage in Computerworld's Storage Knowledge Center.

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