More X-Files

mas_xfiles

This post is something of a follow-on to the last X-Files post.

It began as a response to comments on X-Files and then wandered on its own way.

On Thanksgiving, 27 November, a most interesting and relevant article was posted by Tech-On!, a Japanese site for engineers in the electronics/ machinery fields. This article,  “SanDisk Eyes Bringing 3bit/cell NAND to SSDs”, is the most informative to date on SanDisk’s business strategy for SSDs. The article ends with a tantalizing hint of a mystery technology soon to be revealed.

This talk of mystery technologies reminded me of Solid State Storage Solutions, LLC (SSSS LLC). Decided to check up and four more patents have appeared.

By the way, for anyone reading this not all that familiar with popular USA culture of the last couple of decades, the “X-Files” was an American sci-fi TV series which first aired on September 10, 1993, and ended on May 19, 2002.  A big deal in my house. Probably a bigger deal than psychologically healthy.

More X-Files

For x3, I anticipate a replay of the SLC vs MLC debate of 2004/2005.  Samsung (as a secondary MLC player at the time) spent a lot of time and money campaigning against MLC as both slow and unreliable.

Shortly after Apple came calling for MLC in 2006, Samsung finally stopped beating that dead horse. Today x2 MLC is accepted as being just fine for the lion’s share of NAND applications.

Am expecting deja vu all over again for x3 MLC. x3 is going to be slower and less reliable than the better x2 MLC- certainly in these early days. Just how much of a drop-off will likely depend on the manufacturer.

That said, SanDisk seems to feel that its x3 does the job at least in some applications. SanDisk is shipping x3 in commercial products today. These x3 products are not being sold cheaper. The x3 is simply standing in where x2 once held forth.

And there are no complaints that I am aware of. SanDisk x3 is not considered a reduced capability part.

Which brings us back again to ABL. SanDisk has attributed its x3 success directly to ABL.

Apparently the internal chip layout is very efficient. The page buffers are along the side where the bonding pads are and then the row decoders are between the arrays. The row decoders, page buffers and all bonding pads are on one side and voila– an efficient floor plan. Or at least so they say.

While every square mm is precious, to my mind, the bigger ABL deal has to do with performance. ABL column logic is two-sided where conventional MLC is only one sided. In conventional MLC each sense amplifier has to deal with 2 bit lines. With ABL each bit line has its own sense amplifier and therefore the chip is a lot faster.

The example given in the 2008 ISSCC presentation is for 4 KB pages programmed in parallel. Conventional x2 MLC can program 2 in parallel while ABL full sequence can program 8.

For reference: Conventional x2 MLC clocks in around 10MB/S. x2 ABL MLC full sequence can achieve 34 MB/S. SanDisk/Toshiba x3 (56nm) achieves 8MB/S.

By 2012  x3 (3 bits/cell) is expected to take over as the industry workhorse accounting for over half the market at 53% (numbers from Forward Insights).

To hit 53%, x3 will have to have found a home in SSDs, the looming megamarket. 8 MB/S, in and of itself, hardly seems adequate.

SanDisk, at least, appears to have a plan, and maybe a solution.

It appears that SanDisk has a new unannounced technology waiting in the wings. Rumors are that this technology will enable “ 3- and 4-bit MLC flash acceptable in the performance stakes.”

This technology is expected to be announced January 7-8, next year at CES in Las Vegas.

Purportedly this mystery technology together with x3 ABL NAND and ExtremeFFS will enable viable SSDs using 3 bit/cell NAND.

Extreme Flash File System (ExtremeFFS)

extremeffs

The ExtremeFFS slide above is from SanDisk’s Don Barnetson’s press conference in Tokyo November 26, 2008. Suspect we’ll see a lot more of it.

ExtremeFFS  was announced by SanDisk on 5 November of this year. It is  advanced flash file system software for SSDs. Purportedly a solution to the SSD problem of random writes- a big, big problem.

ExtremeFFS is patented and SanDisk also owns the IP to its predecessor TrueFFS, developed by msystems in 1994.

As the ExtremeFFS slide above indicates, ExtremeFFS adds three important integrated functionalities to TrueFFS. Each tailor-made for SSDs. From Tech-On!’s coverage of SanDisk’s Don Barnetson’s press conference in Tokyo Nov 26, 2008 [points corresponding to slide]:

“First [Page based Data Allocation], the new system can manage data by page unit, which is a smaller data storage unit compared with the prior block unit.

Second [Fully non-Blocking Architecture], it can perform different actions in parallel via multiple channels. For example, while the user is writing data and doing “garbage collection” (liberating unused memory) via one channel, data can be read out via a different channel.

Third [Usage Based Content Localization], the new system can “learn” the user’s pattern of using data and localize data storage areas in accordance with factors including how often the data has been used.”

So how good might ExtremeFFS be?

SanDisk claims that ExtremeFFS has the potential to accelerate random write speeds up to 100 times over existing systems. Translating this into “net performance next year”, SanDisk feels we’ll see performance “four times faster than the current generation of SSDs, and nearly six times that of the latest 2.5” HDDs.”

SanDisk “has no plans to license the ExtremeFFS file system so far.” If SanDisk were to have a change of heart about licensing, the licensing vehicle might already be in place.

Solid State Storage Solutions, LLC (SSSS LLC)

SSSS LLC is about as obscure as obscure gets for those watching SanDisk closely. It may or may not amount to anything. It may be irrelevant already. On the other hand it may not.

All this recent talk about mystery technologies related to SSDs got me thinking that it might be time to check again on SSSS LLC. Nothing new in SEC filings. But 4 new USA patents have shown up since March: #7450457, #7447072, #7379379, and #7366016.

ssss-llc-slide1

The slide above is from SanDisk’s 12.04.07  Nasdaq 20th Investor Program presentation. To my knowledge this is the one and only time SSSS LLC has been discussed publicly. At the time, Eli said:

“We have formed a partnership with another major owner of system level flash IP, [the partnership is] called Solid State Storage Solutions.”

Today, it seems pretty clear that SanDisk’s SSSS LLC partner is likely Toshiba. Intel, Hynix and Samsung can be eliminated for obvious reasons. Not much left after that.

Note the language on the slide: “Solid-State Storage Solutions licensing entity formed: captures third party flash systems IP portfolio.”

It also appears a pretty safe bet that the “third party flash systems IP portfolio” captured, comes through Renesas, from Hitachi.

6 patents have been assigned to “Solid State Storage Solutions LLC”.  All this year. All are continuations of patents assigned originally to Hitachi and then to Renesas with one exception- U.S. Pat. No. 7450457- which was assigned to both.

Maybe the exact name, “SSSS LLC”, is just a coincidence. Given that the patents have to do with clever ways of managing flash memory, am inclined to think not.

The first U.S. patent assigned to SSSS LLC is No. 7324375, which has a publication date of 01/29/2008 and a filing date of 05/08/2006. It is a continuation of Pat. No. 7,286,397, assignee Renesas. This patent started life out as U.S. Pat. No. 5,889,698 filed way back in Jul. 9, 1997. Date of Patent 1999. Assignee Hitachi. Foreign Application Priority Data goes back to 1995.

The most recent patent assigned to SSSS LLC is U.S. Pat. No. 7450457 which was published 11/11/2008. I suspect there are more to come. No reason not to.

So what systems IP might SSSS LLC, the licensing entity, have, that others might want/need?

As SSSS LLC IP is a combination of specific SanDisk IP, specific IP of the unnamed partner (Toshiba?) and the specific captured third party IP (Renesas/Hitachi?), its all guesswork today.

My guess is that SSSS LLC is somehow related to SSDs. If so ExtremeFFS would be a prime candidate.

If, as I suspect, its focus is also MLC SSDs: x-files stuff: x2, x3 and maybe even x4, the unannounced technology waiting in the wings is also a prime candidate.

As the X-Files tag line goes, “I want to believe.”

That said, SanDisk still has to deliver.

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17 Responses to More X-Files

  1. bob 77977 says:

    something is peculiar here. hitachi is involved in SSD project with intel and selling sandisk a valuable IP that’s going to compete against them?

  2. savolainen says:

    Greetings bob 77977,

    I also noticed that Hitachi has partnered with Intel on SSDs for Data Centers.

    Whether Hitachi has somehow maintained claims to this particular IP, now owned by SSSS LLC, is anyone’s guess- but I suspect not.

    Am guessing that Hitachi passed this IP on to Renesas (as the patents show) and then when Renesas exited the NAND flash-memory market, SanDisk (or msystems) stepped in via SSSS LLC.

    If this IP eventually proves very valuable for SSDs, Hitachi (if they did indeed give up ownership) would have made a big mistake.

    Kind of like Seagate cutting its ties to SanDisk.

    Now that HDDs are threatened, the HDD players including Hitachi, are scrambling.

    “Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, formed in 2003 after Hitachi bought IBM’s storage business, is the third-largest maker of hard-disk drives, following Seagate Technology and Western Digital, respectively.”

    http://www.informationweek.com/news/storage/systems/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=212201456

    I’ve also been wondering why SanDisk didn’t just acquire the Renesas IP outright.

    One explanation might be, that this way, by having the licensing entity acquire it directly, those companies with cross-licensing agreements with SanDisk can have no claim on this IP.

    Best,
    Savo

  3. bob 77977 says:

    thanks savo,
    it was said that one more technology is missing to complete the 2nd generation SSD. ExtremeFFS is solving the speed issue. then there is the reliability issue in using MLC. as you implied in your X4 post, this could be solved by the stratosphere technology “it can also be used to improve NAND reliability”. so, applying the technology on a basic X3 chip can either result in a X5 or an increased reliability X3 and maybe also increased reliability X4.
    is this, in your opinion, the missing technology (adaptation for increased reliability) or is it something to do with extra speed?
    weren’t we supposed to sample the new SSD before end 08 and start production in 1Q 09 ?
    looks like we are going to precede intel by a full year not to speak yet about quality. even in these difficult times demand is going to be fantastic.

  4. bob 77977 says:

    hi again,
    it took me a while to recall. after sandisk bought msystems, eli was asked when was he going to use X4. he said he wasn’t satisfied with the reliability of X4 and he was going to spend some time to improve it. this must be then the awaited technology. X3 will be turned to be either more reliable X4 or very reliable X3.

  5. savolainen says:

    Hi bob 77977,

    With ABL MLC, SanDisk seems to have the chips themselves covered for x1/ x2/ x3 SSDs.

    x4 may be something else, but it seems this mystery technology will help there too (eventually).

    With ExtremeFFS, SanDisk seems to have clever software for SSDs. Or at least so they say.

    As to the soon-to-be-announced mystery technology, I’m guessing it will have to do with system architecture. In other words, the rest of the story- technologies/strategies for making the SSD as a system- controllers/buffers and so forth.

    Apparently Renesas had a unique flash management approach which allowed simultaneous programming of blocks within the flash itself. Back in 2004 it was thought this might provide a reasonable work-around to the so-called inherent MLC performance issue.

    This approach or concept was considered to offer the potential of effectively almost tripling programming bandwidth for a MLC device. Maybe SanDisk has worked out some details of simultaneously programming blocks? Renesas purportedly could deal with 4 at once. Why stop there?

    As you note there is also the issue of reliability to deal with. I suspect this will be dealt with as well in some clever scheme of substitutive memory which will allow write errors of the flash memory to be remedied. [Am cribbing from the SSSS LLC patents].

    BTW if you or anyone else out there knows an interesting sign-off in hebrew- the equivalent of “Best [Regards]” in English, I would be interested. Also please explain the subtleties. It would be appreciated.

    Best,
    Savo

  6. flashwave2000 says:

    savo,
    you may try “kol toov”….meaning “all the best”….pronounced “cole” like nat king cole and “toov” rhymes with “tube”

    BTW, your posts are amazing,….I anxiously await reading them, and they are very important to those of us who are long term investors but lack the depth of knowledge and insight you have.
    thanks as always and all the best!
    gal2k

  7. oded says:

    Savo,

    Another sign-off could be “brachot” which is the equivalent of “regards”.

    I must agree with gal2k comment regarding your amazing posts.

    Oded

  8. bob 77977 says:

    thanks savo,
    things are starting to move:
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-10787_3-10119981-60.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-5
    unlike personal computing where you pay extra for better performance, using SSDs in servers is actually cheaper then HDs (already now!!!). what makes it a more wonderful news, is the fact it is believed that this field is almost recession immuned.
    I agree with flashwave2000 but would spell it – kol tuve.

  9. bob 77977 says:

    my guess is that SSSS LLC is to do with hybrid drives and seagate is probably our partner.

  10. DanR says:

    “We have formed a partnership with another major owner of system level flash IP, [the partnership is] called Solid State Storage Solutions.”

    Take a look at Microsoft flash memory IP
    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/result.html?p=1&srch=ezsrch&pn=&apn=&all=flash+memory&ttl=&abst=&aclm=&spec=&apd=&apdto=&isd=&isdto=&prir=&ccl=&icl=&in=&icn=&is=&ic=&an=microsoft&acn=&as=&ac=&ref=&fref=&oref=&parn=&pex=&asex=&agt=&uspat=on&usapp=on&date_range=all&stemming=on&sort=relevance&search=Search

    Plus the StartKey – U3 replacement will need SSD capabilities if MSFT/SNDK wants to store the OS in it.

    Also, in the MSFT/SNDK U3 PR, note that a new license entity is mentioned.

  11. savolainen says:

    Hey DanR

    Nice to hear from you.

    In this post, I almost inserted MSFT as a strong possibility.

    But didn’t bother as there were so many other things going on. Afterwards I was thinking of adding a comment. So this will do nicely.

    I think you are on to something. MSFT fits the bill. And is quite exciting. If this is the way things turn out, some heads will be turned.

    Regardless of whether MSFT is involved with SSSS LLC, it seems MSFT and SanDisk will almost certainly announce StartKey at CES. In and of itself, that should be interesting.

    Also Toshiba has their own line of SSDs already out. If they were the SSSS LLC partner and SSSS LLC is about SSDs, I would think Toshiba would have held back, just like SanDisk has- but there are so many angles and possible explanations.

    I was just re-reading the wave of StartKey articles from March of this year.

    Some make the point that StartKey, the U3 replacement, will not be limited to USB drives- which is as expected. SD cards are specifically mentioned, and then there is mention of “possibly more.”

    http://www.everythingusb.com/microsoft-startkey-14376.html

    “Possibly more” could certainly [eventually] be SSDs.

    Thanks also for pointing out the MSFT flash memory IP.

    All this said, the obvious interpretation of the licensing entity in the MSFT/SNDK U3 PR, is a follow-on to the U3 licensing entity. This would seem a curious vehicle to also address the keys to performance and reliability for MLC SSDs- even though there could be convergence down the road.

    Maybe SSSS LLC was never meant to address MLC SSDs and is for something else like StartKey?

    In any case, its feeling like this next CES will be a far bigger deal for SanDisk than 2008. Likely StartKey and MLC SSDs will be featured.

    kol toov
    Savo

  12. bob 77977 says:

    hi,
    2 more points regarding SSSS LLC.
    storage solution in the name says this partnership deals with storage solutions, most probably not just a product but a certain combination.
    second, business wise, forming such a company implies owners think about licensing third parties too.

  13. Hapa says:

    Greetings,
    Sandisk can be excited about partnership with Microsoft, but one thing is sure, you have to cover all bases when dealing with great white sharks like Microsoft or Intel. I just hope that Eli is well prepared after the lesson with Samsung.

  14. b9indifference says:

    well

    It appears we will not hear a smart-key-MSFT announcement

    The SSD 240Gb at $499 is impressive. The concept of Slots pre-loaded is interesting via genre and “expert” assembled as to content

    Will be curious to see the offerings
    Especially for genres like Classical Jazz etc
    The 35 – 60 plus demographic spends bucks as well

    There was a 7 am LAS VEGAS–(BUSINESS WIRE) per-empt of the 1-pm press announcement for SSD’s and I believe much of the Slot Radio news was known

    Not sure why SanDisk was so mysterious??

    Still the SSD is big news

    I wonder why the market did not react??
    b9

  15. rvc44 says:

    Shlomi Cohen at Globes online recently referred to something called starkey. Then I heard it was startkey. Is either of these what is called ‘bitlocker to go’ in the beta Windows 7??
    link:

    http://news.zdnet.co.uk/software/0,1000000121,39588630,00.htm

    I am curious how or if sandisk is involved and stands to benefit

  16. Poofypuppy says:

    Hi Savo,

    Hope you enjoyed the holidays and New Year. Saw a citation for you on Shlomi Cohen’s recent article (http://seekingalpha.com/article/113546-for-good-news-try-sandisk-at-vegas). A few quick questions for you…

    (1) During Seagate’s recent earnings call, their COO stated “In the Enterprise market we remain the leader, and I’m encouraged with our current road map and position. This road map includes the commitment to solid state devices. We are set to deliver our first SSD product into Enterprise applications later this calendar year. SSDs and solid state technology are essential to our long-term product roadmaps, and we will maintain our investment levels to deliver leading technology as required by our current and future customers.” Who do you believe Seagate will source their NAND flash from, and do you think they will partner with or compete against SanDisk?

    (2) Any more thoughts or news regarding Microsoft and SanDisk?

    (3) I liked SNDK’s announcement regarding their new 3rd-generation MLC SSD drives. It appears they will soon enter the realm of Joe six-pack, where almost any computing device will be able to incorporate SSD affordably (except for those systems needing to store lots of large multimedia video files that tilt toward the cheaper $/MB storage of rotating disk platters. Do you think SanDisk has hit a single, double, triple or homer ( or a strikeout) with this technology?

    Regards,
    Poofy

    • savolainen says:

      Happy New Year b9 and Poofy,

      Hope you and yours are well.

      I was traveling over the holidays and took a break from posting. Before taking off for the warmer weather I was about half-way through a post on StartKey. I suppose it will be finished sooner or later, though there seems no rush now.

      As I see it, there are three options as to why we didn’t get StartKey, the SanDisk/MSFT U3+ product at CES:

      1. StartKey could be dead.
      2. StartKey could be behind schedule- Technical problems and so forth
      3. StartKey, as originally envisioned for release, has morphed into something else.

      I am partial to #3 and suspect it will tied into plans for Windows 7. BTW, related to this, I also now think that MSFT is the likely mystery SSSS LLC partner (more likely than Toshiba).

      As far as Seagate goes, I think they are in big trouble and mostly irrelevant to SNDK. I suspect that MU is the natural tie-in for Seagate– Birds-of-a-feather.

      As far as the CES SSD announcement goes, extending the baseball metaphor: I’d say it’s a double with one out. Runner is in scoring position (big revenue potential), with the middle of the order (32nm) coming up (2010). No runs have scored yet, though.

      The big SSD deal is the random write performance, which I suspect SNDK has knocked. No one seems to be paying attention to this angle today, but in the longer run I suspect they will. Another big deal is endurance coupled as always, with cost.

      SNDK sounds confident, but it’s going to take independent testing to show they’ve got the right stuff.

      Design wins will tell the tale as well. As I see it, 2010 will be the breakthrough year for SSDs. 32nm NAND should bring costs down to the tipping point. For those like SNDK with the expertise coupled with in-house NAND supply, it should be a wild ride- world economy willing. That said, SNDK still has to win those accounts and book those revenues.

      I am expecting we will hear more of the SSD technical good stuff in the next 6 months.

      It would be interesting to expand on all this. Am not sure I’ll be able get to it tomorrow. If not hopefully a week from Sunday.

      Best,
      Savo

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