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Innovation

Intel's SSD - flash, fast, expensive... and slightly mysterious

Intel's very high performance solid-state drives are making their appearance this week, and over in the US a couple of lucky publications have got their units and run them through some tests. As promised, they're fast, efficient, much more expensive than hard disks - $600 for 80GB is well over ten times costlier - and, as one of the testers reports rather peculiarly, almost silent.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

Intel's very high performance solid-state drives are making their appearance this week, and over in the US a couple of lucky publications have got their units and run them through some tests. As promised, they're fast, efficient, much more expensive than hard disks - $600 for 80GB is well over ten times costlier - and, as one of the testers reports rather peculiarly, almost silent. It's the almost that gets me.

We'll be taking our own good hard look at the technology as soon as Intel decides to ship some over to the old country. But meanwhile, there is a small mystery to explore.

At IDF, Intel handed out 'mechanical models' of the SSDs to the hacks who attended the unveiling meeting. On inspection, these turned out to be suspiciously like fully functioning prototypes with their controller chip ripped out; indeed, this is what they were. The Intel exec who took questions said that this was to stop the secrets getting to their competitors too soon - well, perhaps.

There's no doubt that the controller chips are clever. Intel's claimed performance, lifetime and reliability figures are superb, and those come from really smart dynamic management of the way the flash chips are used. Intel hasn't said much, and probably won't say much, about what's going on inside. Fair enough.

But what's going on outside is just as intriguing. Pictures of the chips are now available and the controllers are clearly stamped as made in Taiwan. Intel has no manufacturing in Taiwan - no fab plants and no packaging facilities. Although the chips do have the Intel 'i' logo on them, they can't have been made by Intel itself. Thinking back to the IDF launch event, the exec did say "Don't worry. There will be an Intel-branded chip there when it's launched", which struck me then as a rather odd way to put it - but there was no time to ask more questions.

Which is interesting. There's no reason why Intel can't go elsewhere for its chips (the SDRAM buffer chip in the SSDs is made by Samsung, after all - one of Intel's big competitors in the field), but in a case like this where it's not a commodity device it's significant. Of course, SSDs are and will be for some time high margin devices selling in relatively low numbers, which is normally good enough reason to have someone else make a chip for you; you can pay a bit more and they can worry about keeping their fabs fully occupied. The thing may even be an FPGA, a massively reconfigurable system on a chip; looking at the picture more closely, it seems to be associated with a tiny 8-pin package that could be a serial flash chip containing the configuration data – it's too low-res to tell. FPGAs are not uncommon in high end storage and networking devices: but then, most people who make high end storage and networking devices don't have a worldwide machine that makes chips by the gazillion.

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