Much has been made about the ongoing data storage market struggle between solid state devices and traditional hard disk drives. SSD adoption rates have quickly picked up steam in recent years as the cost of NAND-based flash memory has dropped, allowing more businesses and consumers to benefit from its performance advantages. However, another hidden battle has been waging within the SSD market as single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level cell (MLC) flash memory vie for supremacy.
To the average consumer, the differences between SLC and MLC technology may appear negligible, but those disparities are extremely important to business owners. SLC flash devices have demonstrated better endurance, a greater range of operating temperatures and faster data read/write speeds than MLC storage options. From a purely performance perspective, SLC seems like the clear choice for prospective SSD adopters, particularly businesses which place a higher premium on operability. However, MLC flash memory is far less expensive to produce than SLC. Considering that perhaps the greatest barrier to wider SSD adoption has traditionally been the price point, cost is a vital aspect of the technology's viability.
Cost trumps performance
Some industry experts have predicted that MLC flash storage will become the SSD market standard in the coming years. Dell vice president Alan Atkinson recently forecasted that MLC will completely replace SLC memory within five years.
"SLC is still the most reliable technology out there, that I am aware, and has very capable performance characteristics but just happens to be really, really expensive," Atkinson stated.
FierceCIO noted that many SSD manufacturers have already embraced MLC for most of their products. This has even been witnessed at the enterprise level, where industry-specific data storage solutions often utilize MLC flash memory aside from a very select range of high performance products.
ComputerWeekly's Antony Adshead actually predicted the demise of single-level cell storage back in March. He noted that although SLC was the best performing flash memory on the market, the price gap would be too much to overcome. Adshead argued that the real battle within the SSD market is between multi-level cell and triple-level cell (TLC) memory. TLC, the latest NAND option to emerge in the marketplace, has many inherent challenges, including higher power and cooling needs, compared with MLC. However, industry observers such as Adshead predict that the cost of TLC could drop below that of other options, making it a highly desirable commodity in the SSD market. Until then, it appears that MLC will continue its reign as market leader.