Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

Summary: Fresh off the HD-DVD fiasco, Toshiba execs are stepping up to pursue another expensive flop: notebook SSDs. Memo to Toshiba: flash SSDs cost too much and deliver too little to win that much market share.

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Fresh off the HD-DVD fiasco, Toshiba execs are stepping up to pursue another expensive flop: notebook SSDs. Memo to Toshiba: flash SSDs cost too much and deliver too little to win that much market share. That won't change in the next 3 years. Here's why.

Please sir, may I have another! Given the multi-billion dollar cost of semiconductor fabs, getting the notebook SSD market wrong would make Toshiba's $250 million HD-DVD loss look cheap. The president of Toshiba semi, Shozo Saito, recently opined that flash drives will be in 25% of notebooks by beginning 2011.

He is badly wrong.

Same power, same performance and way more expensive - can that be right? If flash drives delivered what proponents claim there would be no problem. But they don't and they won't.

Power: no SSD notebook has gained more than 10 minutes battery life over disks. Apple said 5 minutes for the MacBook Air. One test found lower battery life. Since flash is already power-efficient that won't change. Disks have multiple opportunities to improve power use - and with over a $1 billion a year in R&D behind them - they will.

Performance: tested application performance hardly changes either - even with a $3,800 flash drive. Notebook I/O doesn't favor flash drives - and the engineering contortions needed to fix flash aren't cheap.

Anandtech found one big win for flash performance: boot and app load times. It makes the system feel a lot snappier - if you often reboot or quit and restart apps. Sleep mode makes that much less important.

Reliability/durability: flash vendors tout 2 million hour MTBFs and superior shock & vibe specs. Yet Dell reports that their SSD infant failure rates are about the same as disks. And the return rate higher.

So where, exactly, is the advantage? Beyond that, there is NO evidence today that flash drives will prove to be more reliable in actual notebook use. Only time will tell.

Data integrity? Of all the unanswered questions about flash drives, this is the scariest. Flash has read errors - that's why vendors implement error detection - just like disks.

But flash has a problem disks don't: flash drives move your data around with every update. Every time a flash drive writes a page, it has to erase the entire block that page is in.

What happens to the data in the block? It gets read and rewritten along with the new page - to a new location. The map that keeps track of where your data is rapidly gets very complex - and itself is regularly read and rewritten. How well-protected is this critical data structure?

If the flash drive's physical to virtual block map gets corrupted there is no way to recover your data. And that critical map is getting read, updated and rewritten with every file update!

If flash SSDs are like every other storage product, catastrophic failure modes are hiding in the statistical weeds.

The Storage Bits take The further I wade into flash issues, the worse it gets. My sense is that the flash industry close to creating a multi-billion dollar fiasco. Why?

  • Over-promising on performance, reliability, battery life and data integrity.
  • Positioning flash drives as a general replacement for notebook hard drives - when pricing clearly says they aren't.
  • Relying on system OEMs like Dell to market SSDs to consumers is a freeway to failure. The flash vendors need to market flash SSDs directly to consumers.

The flash guys are caught in a vise: big expensive fabs that need to run all year; and seasonal demand that whipsaws their pricing all year.

Notebook flash drives can help even out demand - but only if consumers accept them for the right reasons. Otherwise Toshiba's new fabs will build chips for a non-existant market. And make them long for the good old days of HD-DVD.

Update: I fixed a broken link and tightened up the opening paragraph.

Comments welcome, of course.

Topics: Toshiba, Dell, Hardware, Storage, Web development

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15 comments
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  • Three years is a long time for Technology

    And in 3 years, the drives will be faster, they will be more reliable, and they will be cheaper.

    Need we forget that at one time hard disk were considered 'to expensive and fragile' to ever be used in everybody's computers?
    Stuka
  • Maybe.....we'll see.

    I still think the concept is good. Improvements and new discoveries will keep coming. Many people said the LCD flat screens would never catch on, but now it's a standard. The first cell phones and portable computers like the Osborne were questionable, but led the way for a very sucessful industry now. Many devices were laughted at when they were first tried, but technology fixes everything. A solid state hard drive could be infinitely more rugged than the mechanical nightmare that a standard drive encompasses. I seen many a notebook hard drive die after being left overnight in a car in -30 degree weather. Computers in military vehicles, construction equipment, trucks and cars could use a rugged solid state hard drive. I think mechanical hard drives will be at the end of their development cycle soon and a replacement is needed. Sure the present flash drives have their weaknesses, but that could be fixed. I guess time will tell the whole story.
    garry_k@...
  • Blu-ray is NOT WORTH the cost .... but some dumb people payed for it

    If you are comparing cost vs what you get, using the HD-DVD loss is not a good comparison.

    Blu-ray is still lagging behind some of the features provided buy HD-DVD. In fact the only features where Blu-ray won was initial storage size and more titles ... in everything else it still lagging behind.
    - HD-DVD was cheaper (granted it was with a loss).
    - HD-DVD had HYBRIDS that could play on regular players. That was a HUGE feature.
    - The HD-DVD players are still the best upconverters in the market. And regular DVD as still the kings.
    - HD-DVD players were easy to update (from the beginning), while until recently, the only updatable blue-ray was the PS3.

    Blu-ray didn't win because it was a superior product (technically the quality of the media is about the same as HD-DVD ... it is the players where it sucked). They won because the out-spent the competitors.

    The moral of the story is that people will pay money for what ever crap you throw at them. SSD could be a hit if it is what people think they want. Price is not necessarily a factor when it comes to technology. If it was, then explain why people prefer to pay for an iPod instead of many of the other cheaper MP3s in the market.
    wackoae
    • Why others do not offer HD-DVDs? Fair competition or an unseen order? (NT)

      (NT)
      Just_true
  • Solid state wins over time

    The general course of electronics has been that over time devices move from mechanical to solid state devices. There are lots of reasons for that including durability and power consumption and even price. I think the comparison to LCD vs. CRT is a good one. Even though early LCDs had all sorts of problems they kept working on them and they got them right. If this first generation of SSDs are about as good as average hard drives, just more expensive, that means to me that they are going to be better sooner and the price of everything comes down eventually as people start to buy them.
    jrit
    • Solid State is the future.

      Disk drives are the present king of the hill. Yet as good as they are they are still an electrical-mechanical device. There is stuff in there that will fail, there is the motor that spins the disk and there is the read-write arm. Over time these components have become much more reliable. However there is an intrinsic limit to the reliability of the parts.

      With no moving parts a solid state device is intrinsically superior to a unit with moving parts. Present flash technology may negate that advantage but sooner or later that will go away. SSD will eventually rule the roost, maybe it will be with a different technology then flash.

      That is not to say that Toshiba won't loose its shirt on SSDs as presently constructed especially if they do eat critical data. Then again Toshiba now has an incentive to improve flash technology or find its successor. SSDs will come down in price and there is the after market storage device field to think of. SSDs might make very nice and nifty external drives.

      If you look at the history of technology it does seem to follow a rule; first comes mechanical, then it is supplanted by electro-mechanical which in turn is supplanted by solid state devices. Toshiba might be overly optimistic about how long this might take in the field of storage devices but they are probably correct in the eventual results. Not that being eventually correct is any solace to a business; Adam Osborne found that out the hard way.
      spincitysd@...
      • Yes, but maybe not SSD. There are technologies that can write huge date...

        ... almost instantly and store it. They have been known for decades, but they are not related to the industry yet. It's about 3-D storage using the materials similarly to what Nature is using instead of HDs and RAM (not DNA or RNA).

        Maybe the FDA is the only obstacle on the way? :) I don't know.

        I know that the real future is for the storages that will use ability of quantum particles to memorize any event. It will happen when traditional physics will go away and new understanding of forces that make e.g. electron detectable, will come.

        [url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/nolavconsole/ukfs_news/hi/newsid_4970000/newsid_4979700/bb_rm_4979716.stm]Gary McKinnon says[/url] that such technologies already exist, but [b]government do not let them go[/b]. Is it true or not - judge yourself:

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        Just_true
  • RE: Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

    along the lines of the person who alluded to the days of the CRT Vs. LCD (let's now even mention plasma) - SSD will eventually settle in alongside Disc storage, I predict at least 50% market share. All in due time though. I'm no expert at the subject matter, just another consumer, but I'm not blind - there are too many trends from our recent past to say otherwise. Bashing Toshiba on the HD-DVD debacle ... well, they should have known better. The mediums were too similar, and Sony had too much experience in that area snyways + better marketing/networking/promotion (Playstation, Audio CDs, UMDs, proprietary storage, etc.) I for one am willing to watch and see how this SSD push works out for Toshiba. Fortune favors the bold. Who Dares, Wins... or dies trying >_<
    Nick85er
  • RE: Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

    It looks to me that the facts and reasoning were selected on purpose - whatever it was.

    Maybe SSD's are not perfect yet but the potential is there (even if not proven yet, I cannot tell): more durable, faster, less noise, less power, less heat.

    25% is low.

    Br, Hessu
    Hessu
    • cost will have to drop fast

      The cost of SSDs will have to drop extremely fast to garner any double-digit notebook share by 2011. When you compare a 128gb SSD to a 120gb HD, it's $3000 vs $80. For SSD to compete, it would have to be within at least a 50% difference, maybe $120.

      Even if the costs were cut in half every year, it would be at least 4 years before it even was comparable to the HD cost now, and who knows what other technology the spinning drive manufacturers would come up with by then. The combined flash/platter drives would seem to be the way to go for quite some time.

      As we need more and more storage for our systems, compromising for less in exchange for a slight speed increase and a vague promise of battery life isn't that attractive.
      coffeeshark
  • what about weight?

    If you had users picking out their laptops based solely on their weight, perhaps you would see a different verdict...
    ridingthewind
  • The ssd advantage is weight and size

    They are the best choice for small devices that already outnumber the computers.
    Toshiba is positioning itself for a not too distant future, which is a smart move.
    Linux Geek
  • I don't think it's a bad bet...

    It may take a while to pay off, but not as far away as that. 3 years sounds a bit long - I'd put my money on 2 years. Which isn't that far away.

    I'll be back in 2010 to collect my winnings. ;)
    james.faction
  • RE: Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

    I'm just wondering how long BluRay will enjoy the win over HD-DVD. Toshiba should look into putting there R&D into the new holographic storage technology instead of SSD. The early holographic storage technology is starting to come to market now but needs a little more R&D to get the costs down for the small business & home PC market.
    NZJester
  • SSD has some serious issues

    with Outlook 2007.
    Many unexpected "pauses" or outright hangs.

    PST and OST files are having difficulties with r/w operations causing this issue .

    M$ released a KB stating so.

    Nothing like the bleeding edge!
    pgm554