NAND Flash Scarcity – the Roots and Effects of the Issue

Those who have kept an eye on the SSD market over the past 12 months will have noticed a rise in prices due to NAND flash shortages. NAND flash memory is the technology behind power-efficient, solid state drives (SSDs) and other storage memory found in personal computers and mobile devices.

This shortage is impacting those of us in the electronics industry in a variety of ways. Not only are prices rising, but more companies are now trying to fill the void by producing more SSD, while others are hard at work to create alternatives.

The shortage we are experiencing is due to several factors, including:

  • A difficult transition from 2D to denser 3D technology on the manufacturing side
  • Continued high demand for flash for use in smartphones, in particular, the increased storage offered by iPhone 7s
  • Heightened demand from manufacturers desiring flash storage for datacenter hardware
  • Sustained demand for PCs and notebooks, with average flash adoption in notebooks expected to exceed 30%
  • Troubles on the manufacturing side by the two of the largest producers

That final point merits a few more words. One of the largest factors that is undoubtedly contributing to the NAND shortage is Toshiba’s current financial troubles. The second largest supplier of flash memory in the global market and first company to begin producing NAND flash memory, Toshiba has struggled with the production of 3D NAND memory. Toshiba’s troubles are not, however, completely on the manufacturing side. The electronics giant recently acquired a company to build nuclear power plants in the United States—a woeful project that has resulted in accounting scandals, legal actions, and billions of dollars in debt. The upshot: Toshiba is now selling off its semiconductor/NAND memory division. We assume that bidders will include Micron Technology, SK Hynix, Broadcom Ltd, and Western Digital.

Another, more highly publicized issue has to do with the largest supplier of flash memory in the global market: Samsung. The recall of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphones a few months ago have been a factor in the global scarcity, as scores of devices had to be returned and replaced in the market. Along with each of those returned devices was a flash memory unit taken off the market (at least temporarily).

The net effect of this shortage is that prices have increased to PC manufacturers. As SSD performance is now reaching mainstream consumer awareness, including these drives in personal laptops is becoming more and more expected. Nevertheless, SSDs are not usually within the same capacity that most standard hard disk drives (HDD) are sold with. Laptops sold with SSDs are typically in the range of 128 to 256 GB, while a laptop with an HDD is commonly much higher–anywhere between 500GB to 1 TB. But the price differential tends to be quite significant. That will likely remain consistent while scarcity exists.

Nevertheless, some manufacturers are optimistic. Samsung is now expected to begin operating a new plant in Pyeongtaek in July to further expand its 3D NAND production capacity. Micron will start producing 64-layer 3D NAND chips in the second quarter, with mass shipments becoming ready for the second half of the year. The company promises “meaningful output” by the end of their fiscal year in December.

We won’t hold our breath, but while manufacturers continue to scramble, and alternative storage technologies emerge, we’ll keep you updated. Keep your eye on this blog for further developments.

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Use Case: Body Worn Camera Manufacturer requires a Data Storage Solution that solves for both Speed and Reliability

DIGISTOR was approached by a large, successful manufacturer of body worn camera equipment in 2013 concerning the launch of a new camera targeting the law enforcement community.

The camera had a beautiful industrial design, and was loaded with several new features including very high resolution video.

The software developed integrated seamlessly with a full chain of custody solution, ensuring that the digital evidence would be admissible in a court of law.

The Challenge

But, there was one problem. The microSD card originally selected for the camera continually became corrupted, thus losing valuable evidence and making this new body camera all but useless.

Although hundreds of thousands of dollars had been invested in the camera’s hardware and software development, very little investigation was done into the data storage solution the video would ultimately be written too.

The manufacturer turned to DIGISTOR for help.

The Solution

DIGISTOR worked with the manufacturer’s engineering team to understand the full picture, and identified two critical application requirements:

  • Speed. The customer had a critical high speed write requirement that the SD card had to achieve under all circumstances.
  • Reliability. It was crucial that not only the video was protected from corruption, but that the manufacturer’s customers could have a firm understanding of the life expectancy of each card.

Early on in the design process, the manufacturer focused heavily on speed as the number one requirement.

Working closely with the DIGISTOR firmware engineers, the manufacturer was able to achieve the performance needed for video capture of high resolution video.

Moving on to the reliability requirements, the engineers quickly realized the two bigger issues were the lack of consistency on longevity of the microSD cards, and an unacceptable failure rate.

The DIGISTOR engineer’s test results showed that corrupted tables were locking up the SD cards and not allowing for data recovery of potentially crucial video evidence. The engineers took the following approach to support the manufacture’s identification of the best microSD card solution:

  • DIGISTOR provided an application analysis card which the manufacturer ran in a real life application scenario for a 2-week period.
  • DIGISTOR analyzed the data captured to determine how the application was accessing the SD cards, which also showed the write/erase counts.
  • The data analysis also showed incompatible access patterns within the customer software which could be altered to help overall reliability.
  • DIGISTOR was able to perform a Failure Analysis (FA) on the failing cards that showed how the manufacturer’s application was writing to the SD card and where the issues were occurring.

The Results

By having a full understanding of how the video application accessed the SD card and also how the software was over-stressing memory cells due to unevenness of the write/erase cycles caused by incompatible access patterns in the application itself, the DIGISTOR engineering team found that the standard wear-leveling algorithm was not activating properly and causing corruption within the SD card.

DIGISTOR was able to modify standard firmware to meet the requirement of the video application.

DIGISTOR recommended the manufacturer make changes to the software, which improved the overall performance of the SD card and BWC application.The manufacturer was able to achieve both the performance and reliability needed for a successful new camera launch.

Today, the manufacturer continues to grow share in the body worn camera market and achieve a solid ROI on their secure data platform.

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SSD prices on the rise due to NAND flash shortages

The NAND flash supply shortage that has endured this year is expected to continue throughout the fourth quarter, and all signs point to ongoing supply issues well into 2017.

According to TrendForce, strong smartphone demand is the main reason for the NAND flash shortage.  However, higher than anticipated SSD adoption rates in the industrial, enterprise, and consumer markets have also contributed to the severe shortages.  We have already seen factory lead times increase nearly two-fold over the past few months, and price increases affecting certain SSD product lines are not far behind.

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Have you felt the impact of flash?

We’ve seen a more dynamic change in the storage of data on Flash in the past few years than ever before. NAND flash used to only be “trusted” (using that term loosely) in two areas: laptops, and non-critical entertainment such as storage for cameras. Before DIGISTOR was big in the flash storage arena, we would scrutinize every detail of a 2.5” SSD drive for our desktop PC’s, comparing how much data per day we copy, use, and write to be sure we wouldn’t run out of NAND P/E cycles before a standard HDD would.

Over time we came to trust the technology, and even work closely with several global chipset manufacturers that let us in on the deep inner workings of how the NAND is used and how the chipset can, in fact, protect your data. Now we’ve scaled far beyond standard SSD storage for PC’s, and Cinema SSD drives. The more we improve industrial grade high speed flash storage, the more critical applications appear that benefit from improved speed and ruggedized design of solid state storage.

One area that was fairly surprising is the way cloud storage uses flash to improve the response time of any given search for your data. Usually we assume this bottleneck, our ISP, will mean that our remote files can be stored on big spinning disk drives out in a server farm where no SSD’s would really be of use. However, have you noticed that search results appear as you type these days on Google, and Facebook? Yes, that is the result of having some parts of the cloud built to use the high speed dependability of solid state storage.

The area that was more expected, but slower growing, is the IoT. The Internet of Things category has been looking for its day in the sun for some time. Now, something amazing is happening due to the improvements in controller tech, NAND flash, and testing for industrial applications. These little devices can finally have the ability to be truly smart because of the capacity, speed, and reliability of the integrated solid state storage, and improved SoC IC all packed into a small footprint.

The more IoT devices can prove themselves as necessities in our lives, the more innovation will grow from the next generation of devices. In order to do this though, the main requirement is usability. A close second is reliability. IoT devices are usually low power, and always running. Perhaps you don’t even use a particular device every day, but when you need to use it, it must be reliably functioning. There is no room for off-the-shelf consumer flash storage when you have a critical control system in place, perhaps monitoring the security of your home, or granting access to your front door.

We all got used to flash with cheap SD storage for our point-and-shoot cameras, and maybe we have had some experience with SSDs in our laptops. Now that flash storage is used for more critical components in our digital life, there’s no other choice but to be sure your storage of choice is high quality tested NAND and built by a trusted manufacturer. DIGISTOR is always willing to help you in this endeavor. If you’re working on any project, large or small, IoT or enterprise storage, and want to take storage concerns out of the equation, just contact us and we’ll be able to help.

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