Fresh off the HD-DVD fiasco, Toshiba execs are stepping up to pursue another expensive flop: notebook SSDs. Memo to Toshiba: people won’t pay huge SSD premiums for nothing. And almost nothing is what flash SSDs provide today – and for the foreseeable future.

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 so-o-o wrong.

Hand me the back of the envelope, please
Guessing 200M notebook sales in 2011, 50 million flash drives of, say 250 GB, for total sales of 12.5 million TB of flash. Assuming a cost reduction curve of 50% annually from today’s spot market MLC $2500/TB to ~$320/TB in 2011 . . . hmm-m . . . $4 billion in chip sales.

Give or take. Yummy!

If Toshiba projects winning 20% of the market, $800 million in sales would justify over $1 billion in flash factory capacity. And if the market doesn’t appear, a billion dollar write off.

Same power, same performance and way more costly – I’m sold!
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. 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.

The one big win for flash performance: boot and app load times. It makes the system feel a lot snappier – if you often reboot. 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 rates are higher.

So where, exactly, is the flash advantage? Plus, it is only conjecture that flash drives will prove to be more reliable in actual notebook use. Only time will tell.

And what about the 4-bit MLC that Toshiba is counting on to drive costs down at 40-50% per year? This will less durable than current SLC. No hard numbers from the vendors – depends on how good their signal processing algorithms are – but it could easily be 5,000 writes – down from 10,000 today.

How do you explain that to consumers?

Data integrity: the unasked question Of all the questions about flash drives, this is the biggest. I have yet to see an SSD read error spec.

Flash has read errors – that’s why vendors implement error detection.

But flash has a problem disks don’t: flash drives move your data around a lot more often than disks do. Every time a flash drive writes a page, it has to erase the entire block that page is in.

So what happens to the data in the block? It gets read – almost always correctly – and rewritten along with the new page. The new location must be tracked by the drive.

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 it isn’t bulletproof you can kiss your data good bye.

If FTL’s are like every other storage product, catastrophic failure modes are hiding in the statistical weeds. Enterprise IT is rightly suspicious of storage that “auto-magically” moves data around. Consumers have no idea. SSD vendors better have their act together or the class action suits could be as big a problem as the empty fabs.

The StorageMojo 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. Take a systems level perspective, folks. Consumers do.
  • Over-broad positioning of 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. They don’t have the bandwidth. The flash vendors need to market flash SSDs directly to consumers. Not sell them – market them.

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-existent market.

Update: Flash has a place in one notebook niche: below the $40-$50 minimum cost of a disk. As we’re already seeing with the Asus Eee, replacing $50 of disk with $10 of flash makes a big price difference. But those units won’t solve the seasonality problem and may even make it worse. End update.

Comments welcome, of course.