Flash in the pan? SSDs not currently viable, Seagate claims

The conventional wisdom is this: notebook PCs will keep getting smaller lighter and more energy-efficient as we ditch mechanical hard drives and adopt flash memory instead the use of which is already widespread in consumer devices like MP3 players smartphones and tablets. Right? Wrong.

Hard drive manufacturer Seagate has refuted this broadly held assumption publishing a remarkable report which claims that it’s not economically viable now (nor will be any time soon) for producers of NAND flash memory to physically produce enough solid state drives to meet our worldwide laptop storage demands. Seagate’s report NAND Flash: Can It Meet the Growing Storage Capacity Demands of the Laptop PC Market? puts it this way: “Hard disk drives will serve the bulk of the laptop market for many years to come as makers of solid state drive[s] remain overstretched to meet ever-growing demand for laptop storage.”

Apple’s MacBook Air: Seagate says SSD notebooks will remain niche until flash pricing becomes more affordable.

Why is this the case? It’s all in the numbers. According to Seagate the worldwide market for laptop hard disk drives in 2010 was 69 exabytes (ie. 69 million terabytes or 69 billion gigabytes) which is forecast to grow to 95 exabytes this year. Contrasted with this the NAND flash memory industry (the likes of which is used in SSDs) in 2010 had capacity to produce just over 11 exabytes itself. So clearly there’s a gulf in manufacturing capacity there but consider this too: of that 11 exabytes of flash memory produced 93% (more than 10 exabytes) was utilised for consumer appliances such as smartphones memory cards and tablet PCs. Less than one exabyte was actually put in laptops (.86 of an exabyte in fact representing just 7% of the flash industry’s overall capacity).

In 2011 flash manufacturing capacity is expected to grow to 21 exabytes but still only 9% of that (about two exabytes) will be used in laptops. Why is the flash ratio skewed so heavily towards consumer devices? Because it’s easier and cheaper. Seagate says “NAND makers can maintain much higher yields and lower prices for consumer-grade NAND because its performance and reliability specifications are much less stringent than the requirements for laptop PCs.”

Put this together with the cost of generating additional flash-making industries for PCs and the picture starts looking even grimmer for the light-as-air laptop. Building a “megafab” facility capable of producing 3.75 exabytes of flash storage per year costs US$10 billion. A hefty sum but the amount of flash storage produced would equate to only 4% of the projected 95 exabytes we’ll use in laptops this year. Given that the revenue of 4% of the notebook storage market would amount to US$2 billion you can see why investors aren’t lining up. As Seagate puts it: “Spending $10 billion to buy… $2 billion in revenue… is not viable.”

If Seagate’s right it’s discouraging news for those of us looking forward to the continuing evolution of the ultra-portable (and lighter notebooks generally). But take a look at one of the more obvious SSD notebook sellers Apple and you can see where Seagate’s coming from. As we noted recently with the launch of the new MacBook Pros ditching the 320GB mechanical hard drive and upgrading to SSD for the new entry-level 13-inch model will set you back $320 for the 128GB SSD $820 for the 256GB SSD and an astounding $1670 for the 512GB SSD – more than doubling the price of the computer with one customisation. (Admittedly Apple’s pricing is never really on the budget end but even so.)

Seagate says hybrid storage technology offers the best of both worlds (and expects other drive makers to come onboard soon).

So what’s the answer then? Seagate’s banking on hybrid technology which it says can offer flash-like speeds at realistic economies of scale. APC spoke with a Seagate spokesperson about the findings of the report and where it sees the industry heading.

APC: The report contains dramatic figures projecting expected growth in laptop storage which broadly supports the notion that consumers want “more capacity not less”. But isn’t there also a growing market for lightweight SSD-based laptops where users are buying more easily carried notebooks and using them as portable secondary machines?

Seagate: While the market for thin laptops powered by SSDs is growing industry analyst research projects that market demand for laptop SSDs will remain dwarfed by global demand for traditional laptop hard drives for years to come chiefly because of the significant cost difference. Some SSDs cost an order of magnitude more than a traditional hard drive of the same capacity. And while NAND flash prices are falling the dropping price-per-gigabyte of traditional hard drives will continue to give hard drives a significant edge in affordability for original equipment manufacturers system builders and consumers.

One big draw for SSDs in laptops is their fast application and boot-up response. Seagate has made dramatic strides in closing this gap in boot-up speed with Momentus XT Seagate’s solid state hybrid drive (a traditional hard drive with 4GB of on-board flash) and expects the next incarnation of Momentus XT to nearly match SSDs in boot-up speed but at a fraction of the cost – the very reason for the strong adoption of Momentus XT. Seagate is the only hard drive maker to offer a solid state hybrid drive. Although Seagate is the only drive maker to offer solid state hybrid drives Seagate is seeing solid market adoption and expects adoption to accelerate once more drive makers offer solid state hybrid drives.

APC: If the numbers quoted in the report are correct (and flash won’t be replacing mechanical any time soon) then what factors are contributing to this widely held belief?

Seagate: Many of these believers are focused on the apparent advantages of SSDs over traditional laptop hard drives and overlook the raw market projections. Seagate developed the [report] to help dispel what in Seagate’s opinion are these apocryphal notions. One is that SSDs are significantly faster than traditional hard drives a matter that Seagate is answering with its solid state hybrid drive. Soon we expect performance between the drives to be a dead heat.

Another is that because they are not mechanical devices – in other words they have no moving parts like platters and heads unlike hard disk drives – SSDs are necessarily more durable. True the shock tolerance of an SSD is greater than that of a traditional hard drive. But businesses and consumers don’t use bare hard drives and SSDs. The storage devices are housed in in this case laptops. Severe impact to a laptop will most likely cause significant damage to the screen keyboard or casing with these parts acting as an impact buffer to the storage device and other interior components. The jolt that an SSD or hard drive sustains in laboratory shock-tolerance tests are very different than impacts in real-world settings. In the vast majority of cases an installed traditional hard drive will fare just as well as an SSD in a laptop when subjected to the same impact.

There’s also the commonly held belief that because an SSD draws less power than a hard drive the SSD will significantly improve a laptop’s battery life. Hard disk drives draw about 10 percent of the power used by a laptop with the CPU LCD screen graphics card and other components drawing the other 90 percent. With the storage device drawing so little power to begin with SSDs do little to extend battery life in laptops.

APC: The report claims: “Whatever portion of megafab production capacity is devoted to NAND flash for SSDs the return on investment would be difficult to justify given the relatively small available market for laptop SSDs.” If this is the case then why are SSD laptops currently in production at all?

Seagate: Adding NAND flash capacity is very costly and doing so to meet NAND flash demand for the extraordinarily lucrative market for smartphones tablets and other consumer products makes economic sense while investing in additional capacity simply to serve the relatively small NAND market for laptop SSDs does not because again of the considerable cost. SSD laptops remain in production because there’s a small but legitimate market for these products.

APC: Is there a timeframe when Seagate believes SSD rollout for laptops will become a more prevalent and viable option for manufacturers?

Seagate: This is really a question of economics – of when an SSD can provide adequate capacity at a reasonable cost. The notebook market is one of the most price-sensitive of the computer markets and the budget for storage is roughly 8-10%. So in order to be a viable market SSD must be able to fit into that budget. Today only niche applications fill this requirement. In the future as the cost of SSDs continue to fall there will be more situations where the SSD will fit into the storage budget for the system.