End of SATA flash drives?

End of SATA flash drives?

Summary: A reader asks “is the MacBook Air's use of straight NAND chips in place of a hard disk the beginning of the end for hard drives?” No. It's the beginning of the end for SATA flash drives. Here's why.


A reader asks “is the MacBook Air's use of straight NAND chips in place of a hard disk the beginning of the end for hard drives?” No. It's the beginning of the end for SATA flash drives.

Disk on a chip? The new MacBook air has no disk drive option. It is pure flash in capacities ranging from 64 GB to 256 GB. What is different is that the flash is not packaged in a disk-like can.

Instead, it looks like a DIMM: for fat flash chips on a small PC board.

What's new? Plenty of netbooks use flash soldered on the motherboard. Some high-end storage systems from Oracle and Violin memory use DIMM-like flash in terabyte quantities.

What is new is that it appears Apple, seeking ultimate compactness, is taking a page out of the thumb drive playbook. The interface is at one end, next comes the controller, and then the flash chips.

We'll have to await tear downs to see what controller chip and interface the MBA uses, but it would not be a surprise to see Apple dispense with the not-optimized-for-latency SATA disk interface entirely. There is no reason not to go directly from a PCIe bus to the flash chip controller.

Update: The merry band at ifixit.com has completed their teardown of both MBA models. Here's their take on the MBA's SSD:

The one standout in this proprietary sea is the 64 GB SSD. It's not locked down like the rest of the components, although it is a very slim and unusual form factor (for a hard drive). It's attached to the logic board with what appears to be a new mini-SATA (mSATA) connector, which brings hope to super-slim-laptop-hackers all across the globe. This may enable some crafty tinkerers to rig a larger drive inside the Air, provided they can fit everything within the tight confines of the .68" thick case.

So they didn't drop SATA, but they did lose the drive form factor. End update.

The Storage Bits take Disk drives are so slow that the latency of I/O drivers and SATA interfaces isn't a problem. But with NAND//and it's microsecond access times, suddenly storage stack latency began to matter.

It wasn't long before the first PCI flashcards were marketed. They massively reduced storage stack latency. Today's SATA based SSD's are transitional products. They are bandwidth limited and add unneeded latency.

But they are convenient. There are billions of available SATA interfaces in today's computing infrastructure. SATA-based SSD's make it very easy to get a performance boost with minimal disruption.

We'll have to wait and see what architecture Apple used for its flash storage. But there is no doubt that we will see more flash storage looking like DIMMs instead of disks, and without the SATA interface.

Comments welcome, of course.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Processors, Storage

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Of course the cheapest is to have it all soldered to the mother board at

    the factory, and we will see that eventually, with dirt cheap, lightning fast notebooks and desktops that do not need external storage. Heck, why not also solder 2GB of RAM right to the mother board? Actually, lets take it a step further, why not a system on a chip, with RAM and FLASH stacked above in one package.

    Apple will eventually do this with a screaming fast multi-core Arm. They have already started down this path with A4.
    • ...because RAM goes bad

      ...and telling people that they need to replace their storage drive, mobo, and processor because their RAM is bad sounds ridiculous. Recovering that data also becomes orders of magnitude more difficult.

      This kind of full-unit-on-a-large-chip design works well for tablets and other things that are considered singular, but it's really dumb for those of us who don't store everything on Google servers.

      • RAM is extremely reliable, but, in any case, with an extra socket, you

        could just disable the on-board memory and install memory in the socket. But, motherboards will get so cheap and so reliable, it will not be worth the labor to mess arround even puting memory on them. Just buy a new system.
      • Oh, another thing, the same thing you are saying now, they said about

        always having a separate ethernet card, always having a separate video card. Who would want to have to buy a whole mother board if the ethernet card died? But, guess what, that is all soldered to the mother board now. Soon, it will be all in one multi-layer package that appears to be on chip.

        Sooner or later, a PC will be down to a very small mother board, with one main chip (multi-layer package) that has:

        Multiple cores
        Ethernet controller
        4 Gig of RAM.
        128 Gig of Flash

        If it fails, you buy a new mother board, though they will be extremely reliable. The mother board will be $50.
      • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

        But that is just it.. When you lose a nand chip based HD there is no way to recover anything.. Unlike with a now hd where you have data hard recorded. You lose power to the nand chip like its internal battery dies. you lose all data permintly unless you have it back up on a working drive.

        And if you have no hard then you have to replace the entire applie air book and not just add a part.. Once again apple gets more money out of you.
      • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

        "It?s attached to the logic board with what appears to be a new mini-SATA (mSATA) connector"

        There is no need to replace the logic board.

        "You lose power to the nand chip like its internal battery dies. you lose all data permintly[sic] unless you have it back up on a working drive."

        1) That is not how flash memory works. 2) It is simply not true that NAND RAM is not recoverable.
      • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

        When flash memory dies, it loses the ability to write, not to read. The data is still there, and at most recovery will require replacing the controller.
      • What they said before


        ...is still true. Here's the issue: if the NIC goes bad, PCI/PCMCIA/Expresscard versions are still readily available. Also, it's possible to use a laptop without a NIC. Without a video card becomes a bit more complicated, but it's still technically possible to get the computer working (i.e. remote desktop/VNC/SSH).

        On desktops, yes it's soldered onto the motherboard, but it's a whole lot simpler to work around failed integrated peripherals than it is to work around RAM that goes bad. If they add DIMM slots, what's the point of not slapping RAM in there anyway? If they don't add DIMM slots, then how is the computer at all usable?

        Again, you can call me old fashioned if you'd like, but I actually fix computers for a living, which means seeing just about every part of a computer fail and having to replace it. A unified motherboard is only a good idea on a tablet or a phone. It's utterly retarded in laptops and desktops - and no, they're not going the way of the 8-track tape tomorrow, as much as you seem to want them to.


        P.S. you wouldn't survive 10 minutes writing this crap on Slashdot.
    • Probably will happen but not soon. Heat is still a problem

      @DonnieBoy Memory still generates heat and when you package lots of stuff together it becomes hard to get rid of it. I suspect over time we will see this but not yet. Particularly stacking is an issue from a heat perspective.
  • The question is though,

    what happens if you want to increase the capacity?

    Certainly, soldering the chips on the board make it fast, and saves on space, but if you need additonal or need to expand your storage, you are going to be limited to the factory installs.

    This is probably fine for UMPC's like the MBA or Netbooks and iPads, but on full fledge Desktops and Notebooks, I don't think so. Upgradeable and expandable storage is a must.
    • If it's removable, some 3rd party company will make an upgrade. [nt]

      • To get the price points as low as possible for devices, soldered to the

        mother board, or, in the same package, stacked above the CPU is best. Then, you could add a socket for extra RAM, and a socket for extra FLASH. Could be the same socket to expand either type.
    • For additional space, they could offer an internal microSD slot, or some

      kind of socket that makes sense. I agree it would be good to have a way to add both RAM and Flash for notebooks and desktops.
    • RE: End of SATA flash drives?


      It's good to replace SATA with PCIe fpr flash storage, you have the same freedom of customizability like with SATA, but you have highly decreased latency. ;)
  • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

    "capacities ranging from 64 GB <b>two</b> 256 GB."
    "it looks like a DIMM: <b>for</b> fat flash chips on a small PC board."
    Copywriters, you really need to proofread your copy before posting.
    • Come on, these are blogs, and I do not have a problem with the level of

      errors. The idea is to reduce the overhead and get things published.
    • But...but...but...

      @podstolom... Spell check didn't find anything wrong...

    • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

      @podstolom <br><br>You missed "But with NAND//and <b>it&#39;s</b> microsecond access...."
    • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

      @podstolom You nailed it! The idea of a blog is to produce readable cogent information in a short time. These easily corrected errors slow me down and decrease my ability to understand his thrust. Further down, there are mistakes in the use of "it's" and changes in tense that act like potholes on a freeway. How long would it take to re-read his own stuff and make basic corrections? Are there still people capable of doing a basic editors job working at ZDNet?
      • RE: End of SATA flash drives?

        I agree with you, but I highly suspect that vetting just isn't done period, even by the authors, even though the article probably comes from an audio tape, audio file, etc., and is then transcribed by that application to be posted.
        I would suspect also that the individual authors are tasked with vetting their work and they aren't near as likely to spot these stupid errors as a person unfamiliar with what was written.
        The reason I say these things is because, if you watch, the errors don't change from one author to the other; everyone, almost, has the same grammar-trash, tensing problems and mis-gendered associations. I suspect all you need to do to be an author at these places is know where "Q" is on the keyboard. Really.