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SMART jumps into SSD fray

Computer memory vendor SMART Modular Technologies is joining the solid state drive market with what it calls enterprise-grade multi-level cell (MLC) SSDs to challenge STEC and PCI Express flash to take on Fusion-io.

SMART, a public company based in Newark, CA, today said its enterprise MLCs are available for OEM partners to test. The vendor already has PCI Express NAND cards sampling with OEMs, but no design wins.

SMART’s XceedIOPS SATA is available in 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch form factors and ranging in capacity from 25 GB to 400 GB. SMART uses SandForce’s SF-1500 SSD controller and Micron’s raw Flash chips, according to SMART marketing director Esther Spanjer.

Single-level cell (SLC) XceedIOPS SSDs are also available, but Spanjer says most of the interest from SMART’s prospective OEM partners is for the enterprise MLC drives.

When SSD drives first made their way into enterprise storage last year, MLC devices were considered inadequate because they wear out faster than SLCs. But vendors such as STEC, Fusion-io and now SMART have worked on increasing the reliability of MLCs to make them viable lower-cost alternatives to SLCs for the enterprise.

SSD reliability is measured by program/erase (P/E) cycles, the higher the better. SMART claims its MLCs have program/erase cycles of 20,000, which is about double the industry accepted figures for MLC devices but still about one-fifth of the SLC P/E cycles.

SMART’s press release issued today says the drives are the first enterprise-level MLCs, but that’s not the case. STEC has been sampling its enterprise MLCs since August. Spanjer says SMART will offer its MLCs SSDs at a much lower price than STEC. XceedIOPS costs $400 for a 50GB card and $1,300 for 100 GB (the same price as for a 200 GB SLC device). STEC hasn’t announced pricing for its MLC SSDs, which run up to 800 GB.

SMART is also working on SAS interfaces for SSDs and while Spanjer said she couldn’t divulge too much about future products, she says its unlikely that the vendor will make a Fibre Channel SSD to compete with STEC. “It seems like the Fibre Channel market is phasing out,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would come out with a Fibre Channel drive.”

She said SMART is sampling its SSDs with enterprise storage vendors and expects OEMs to start shipping the drives this year. SMART’s PCI Express Flash cards have been sampling since the fourth quarter, and could start shipping with OEMs by mid-year. Spanjer wouldn’t say which OEMs are testing the SSDs, but SMART counts Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Dell as its largest DRAM customers.

Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Mark Peters says he’s not familiar with SMART, but knows of the SandForce controller and sees an opening for enterprise MLC because of its cost advantages over SLC. “The SandForce controller that SMT is using has great potential from everything I’ve seen,” Peters wrote in an email to Storage Soup.

Peters sees a layered approach to SSDs developing. “We will have a hierarchy of SSD, much as we do of HDDs today so there’s room for plenty of choices to exist in the market,” he wrote. “SLC is pretty much limited to the high end data processing world, which represents a very small part of the overall solid state memory consumption. Longer term, this could mean SLC might not be manufactured (although for now my industry contacts say there’s enough demand to sustain it), but would almost certainly mean a relatively higher price on the SLC media, compared to the ‘standard’ MLC (or whatever it will be in a few years).”

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