Last week was the occasion for a relatively unknown but incredibly important event in the flash world. The International Solid State Circuit Conference (ISSCC) is a yearly event in San Francisco where the top flash designers get together. The flash industry tends to be a small, secretive community, but this is the one time of year that they brag about their latest designs and how they have solved challenges they called impossible the year before. For a few bucks, ISCCC is open for anyone to see, but history and context are crucial to understanding the conversation.
Most years much of the discussion is about how the technology is going to stop working: if I got a nickel every time someone told me NAND flash would stop working in two years … In contrast, this year there was generally shared confidence in extending NAND’s improvement in density and cost though the end of this decade.
A key enabler is going to be 3 Dimensional NAND or 3D NAND. This a vertical stacking of the flash cells in the die. 3D is essential to continuing the cost and density improvements in flash. Happily, this won’t require major changes to the manufacturing or materials, and will be reality in the 2013-2014 timeframe. In fact, this is similar to the transition the disk drive industry went through five years ago with perpendicular recording. (See the best storage marketing video ever here.)
The other major shift is the focus on MLC flash for the content store of record. Designers are no longer looking at flash as an intermediary storage device for caching or temporary mobile storage. Rather, they are focused on delivering a complete solution for long-term reliable storage for all applications. This goes beyond caching and all-flash arrays where flash is prevalent today, but even into near-line and archival storage as a denser, greener solution than disk drives. Everyone knows that flash is faster for random I/O, but today flash has 2-3X the sequential bandwidth of hard drives as well. And unlike disk which only gets denser and cheaper, flash gets denser, cheaper, and faster with Moore’s Law. The true all solid-state data center will be a reality by 2020.
Eli Harai, the co-founder of SanDisk and Godfather of Flash, is calling this the “Golden Decade of Flash” as it will surpass all other ways of storing data. My fellow Puritans and I are believers. Long live flash.