First STEC announces its MLC Solid State Drive (SSD) on 4 December and then Toshiba follows with its MLC SSD on 12 December. So where’s SanDisk?
Apparently off tuning up Vaulter.
Vaulter is a new SanDisk 8GB or 16 GB OEM device designed to operate in conjunction with existing hard disk drives (HDDs) in both laptop and desktop computers. It lives on the motherboard and will be used to store the computer’s OS and most frequently used files. Basically, it seems to be an interim or bridge product primarily aimed at laptops as they make the transition from HDDs to SSDs.
At first glance, Vaulter seems like a nice little niche product, but hardly the type of product that would take priority over MLC SSDs. As crazy as it sounds, SanDisk apparently transferred resources and manpower from its MLC SSD controller project to Vaulter.
Eli from the 12.04.07 Nasdaq 20th Investor Program:
As far as the MLC controller for SSDs, we are probably about a quarter behind where I would like us to be, primarily because of limitations of resources. We are doing a lot things like, Vaulter comes up out of nowhere. It is a good product. It was not on the roadmap. We have to address it. So we are expanding on the engineering side but it [MLC controller] is taking us a little bit longer. There is nothing fundamental, there are no fundamental issues. Its a manpower issue.
The Vaulter Disk seems to be a cousin of SanDisk’s uSSD.
uSSD is a stand alone low capacity SSD, available in 1 GB to 8 GB capacities with SLC or MLC flash. It is the first MLC SSD product from SanDisk and targets the low cost PC, point of sale equipment and blade server markets. It is a mother-board solution with a USB interface. The uSSD will be used in the Intel-powered classmate PC.
The Vaulter Disk is not a stand-alone solution, but is designed to work side by side with a HDD. I have not been able to find any specs on the type of flash used, but I suspect Vaulter will primarily be MLC. It is also a mother-board solution but unlike uSSD has a PCI Express interface.
The essential idea is that the Vaulter Disk accelerates computer performance by operating in parallel with a HDD, “pre-controlling the distribution of storage data between itself and a high-capacity hard drive.” Vaulter purportedly delivers 80% the performance of a SSD (Eli’s number) without the capacity/cost constraints of a full fledged SSD. Vaulter is being billed as an “affordable solution for consumer PC users.”
Eli said that the Vaulter came “out of nowhere”, that “it was not on the roadmap” and that SanDisk had “to address it”. Personally translate these remarks as a customer approached SanDisk with a product request. SanDisk thought about it and decided the idea, and the customer, was worth the effort.
By some accounts, Vaulter was originally scheduled to be unveiled at CES in January.
Then, the CES folks went and gave the device a 2008 Innovations Design and Engineering award, which meant that SanDisk had to pre-announce or pass on the award. According to some we’ll get “more information on the Vaulter, including OEM partnerships” at CES.
So who might this customer be?
The short list would seem to be Dell, HP, Lenovo and/or Sony. All have or have had connections with SanDisk/msystems. Dell is probably at the top of the list. After that its probably a flip of the coin.
Even with a design win or two, still find it hard to believe that Vaulter is worth delaying work on MLC SSDs. After all MLC SSDs are going to be hugely big and Vaulter looks like a nice niche play. One explanation may be that the MLC SanDisk is targeting for SSDs, won’t be available for a little while anyway.
It could very well be that SanDisk is optimizing its MLC SSD controller for 43 nm MLC. Such a strategy makes a certain amount of sense. Apparently the transition from 56 nm to 43 nm is going very well. Both fab 3 and fab 4 will be producing 43 nm starting in the second quarter of next year and at least 30% of SanDisk’s output next year is expected to be 43 nm. By the end of 2008, SanDisk would like to fully out of 56 nm. If SanDisk has 43 nm solved for MLC SSDs, it probably makes sense to just start there.
Lose a little momentum out of the gate, but make it up and then some in the first turn.
Another big 2008 SanDisk MLC story will be three bits per cell MLC. By the end of 2008, Eli has said that not only does he hope SanDisk will be out of 56 nm altogether, but he would like to see as much 43 nm production as possible 3 bits/cell.
Longer term, expect 3 bits/cell MLC SSDs to be a SanDisk solution. Probably too much to ask for such a Xmas 2008 present. Maybe 2009?
Another interesting speculative angle is the laptop form factor itself. HDDs have had a major impact on the laptop as we know it today through its size, power requirements and so forth. The day is rapidly approaching when HDDs will be replaced by solid state flash storage. Right now SSDs are being delivered as drop-in replacements for HDDs.
This doesn’t have to be. If laptops move to a removable SSD card etc model as I suspect they will, it isn’t a given that the onboard solid-state data storage needs to be the HDD look-alike we know today.
The Vaulter Disk in this first generation will only be available in a max capacity of 16 GB. Would think next generation could easily reach 32 GB or 64 GB. If supplemented with removable storage, would a laptop need more?
If this is the way the game plays out, find it encouraging that SanDisk has patents pending on the Vaulter Disk’s storage concept.