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Hybrid HDD, SSD Storage Debut

The introduction by SanDisk of a solid state drive (SSD) and Samsung’s shipping its first hybrid hard disk drive (HDD) this month marks the latest turning point for the notebook computer storage industry.

San Disk introduced at the CeBIT technology show in Germany a 32GB SSD for the portable computer market as a replacement for a mainstream notebook’s traditional hard drive. On March 7 Samsung began production shipments of the MH80 hybrid hard drive to select OEM customers.

The two technologies barely occupy even a niche in the market right now, a fact that will not change for the next several years, industry executives said, but each offers the ability to greatly improve the performance of notebook computers and other small devices that require large amounts of storage capacity.

Samsung’s Steve Weinger, product marketing manager for flash memory, said SSD is primarily found in ultra-mobile personal computers on the consumer side, and in some enterprise and military devices, but this will start to change next year with SSD gaining share in the enterprise laptop space by 2010. Samsung, which is a major manufacturer of NandFlash, supports SSD today as an OEM, but does not support Samsung branded SSDs for retail.

Weinger estimates that about 10 percent of the portable market will be hybrid and SSD based by 2010, but he did not know which technology will be dominant.

The 2.5-inch SSD is SanDisk’s second SSD following the release two months ago of a 1.8-inch version for the ultra-portable notebook market. The 2.5-inch model is now available to vendors as a drop-in replacement for HDDs, the company said. Pricing is set at $350 per unit when purchased in bulk.

Samsung’s 2.5-inch MH80 is available in 80GB, 120GB and 160GB with either 128MB or 256MB of OneNAND flash memory. These are selling into the OEM market, but Samsung will have an aftermarket version out in the second half of the year. By using flash memory as a cache the hybrid drive enjoys the quick boot time and low-power usage as SSD but at a lower cost. A version with 1GB of flash memory will ship later this year.

Storage maker Seagate will roll out a hybrid drive later this year said, Michael Wingert, executive VP/GM, Seagate Personal Computing. Seagate is not planning an SSD product, Wingert said, adding a hybrid drive will deliver all the benefits of an SSD without the attendant extra cost. To a lesser extent, Seagate is troubled about the durability of flash memory. Wingert said there are a limited number of times flash can be written to, though reading is not a problem, and this will limit its lifespan.

Samsung’s Weingert is not concerned with this issue stating that any flash-based device should last many years or at least as long as the average life of a notebook computer.

Hybrid drives are not expected to play a large role in the desktop market as their primary benefit, low power usage, does not come into play.

Flash-memory cost is the main hurdle vendors still must clear for SSD to become a mainstream replacement for the venerable hard disk drive. The $350 price tag set by SanDisk for a 32GB drive is about the same price consumers now pay for 350GB of conventional storage.

Pricing is also an issue for hybrid drives which are hobbled by a 50 percent price delta compared to a non-flash hard drive, said Albert Kim, Samsung’s national sales manager.

To help offset the price advantage held by conventional rotating drives, the SSDs are more reliable, going 2 million hours between failures, allowing for faster boot time and data transfer speeds in the 67MBps range, SanDisk said. The company reported an SSD-equipped notebook can boot Windows Vista in about 20 seconds.

Vista is optimized to work with hybrid and SSD.

An SSD also uses less battery power since it lacks any moving parts. A standard hard drive spins at rates between 5,400 rpm and 7,200 rpm. The computer also operates at a cooler temperature, increasing the unit’s overall longevity.

Despite its performance benefits and the ever falling price of flash memory, SSDs are unlikely to ever displace HDDS. Seagate and Samsung feel flash costs are unlikely to ever become fully inline with hard disks. And this is fine with the companies executives as they all see the two technologies happily co-existing.