Toshiba making *another* bad storage bet

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.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

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.

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