Affordable SSDs in the offing?

New flash memory controller technology from Silicon Motion promises cheaper, more affordable SSDs

September is usually too early to draw year-end conclusions, but I'll go out on a limb to say that 2008 will be remembered as a key year for SSDs (solid-state drives) -- not so much for sales figures, which won't likely reflect the hype surrounding flash SSDs this year, but for the technology itself, which remains one of the most controversial to hit storage in recent times.

Flash SSDs are based on technology rich with technical details that are generally misunderstood. To clear up some of the uncertainty around flash SSDs, I spoke with Wallace C Kou.

Kou is president and CEO of Silicon Motion, a company based in Taiwan and California, and one of the major players in SSD technology. Due to our busy schedules and distant time zones, Kou and I conducted our interview over e-mail.

Please introduce Silicon Motion to our readers.

Silicon Motion is an innovative technology company that designs, develops, and markets high-performance, low-power semiconductor solutions for the mobile multimedia consumer electronics market. We have three major product lines: mobile storage, mobile communications, and multimedia SoC (system-on-a-chip). Our mobile storage business is composed of microcontrollers used in NAND flash memory storage products such as flash memory cards, USB flash drives, SSDs, embedded flash applications, and card readers. Our mobile communications business is comprised of mobile TV tuners, CDMA RF ICs, and electronic toll collection RF ICs. Our multimedia SoC business is comprised of products that support MP3 players, PC cameras, and embedded graphics applications.

How do you see the flash memory market today?

We believe that NAND supply is still bigger than demand and that the industry's excess supply condition will continue through to the end of 2008. Since overall demand is still soft, the movement of channel inventory is slow, which is affecting companies involved in the NAND food chain.

What market segments are you targeting?

Our three product lines target three markets: solid-state storage devices, principally flash memory cards, USB flash drives, SSDs, and embedded flash devices, mobile TV involving DVB-H, T-DMB, S-DMB, ISDB-T, CMMB, and T-MMB standards, and embedded graphics applications. The end application for approximately two-thirds of our revenue, whether from sales of controllers for flash memory cards or mobile TV ICs, is the large and rapidly growing mobile phone industry.

What is an SSD controller, and how does it work?

A controller plays a very important function in a SSD. It manages the data input/output between a host device and the NAND storage media. It also handles various host protocol, special custom command set, data error detection and correction, as well as NAND flash management, such as bad block management, error handling, wear-leveling, data protection during power off, performance, endurance, and reliability, etc.

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Mario Apicella

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