Cache SSD shipments set to surge one hundredfold

The majority of cache SSD units are expected to find their way into devices known as ultra books, the super thin mobile computers launched by chipmaker Intel in 2011, even though non-ultrabook desktops and notebooks also will account for cache SSD use. Of the more than 25 million cache SSDs to be shipped this year, about 22 million units will be present in ultrabooks, up from a mere 500,000 last year.

“Intel is continuing to put its eggs into the ultrabook basket, as indicated by its activities at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES),” said Ryan Chien, research associate for memory & storage at IHS. “From the company’s introduction of the Nikiski reference design, to its announcement that more than 60 additional ultrabook designs will enter the market in time for the 2012 holiday season, Intel at CES showed that Ultrabooks have become the centerpiece of its mobile computing strategy. Cache SSDs represent a key part of Intel’s Ultrabook specification, providing performance, convenience and power-savings capabilities that play a key role in defining the platform.”

A cache SSD looks like a regular solid state drive made up entirely of NAND flash. However, a cache SSD is not an independent storage drive and must run alongside a separate hard drive.

Essentially an ultrabook requirement, cache SSDs make PCs more responsive, allowing faster boot-up times than hard disk drives. Cache SSDs are also less expensive than solid state drives, making them a more economical means to enhance system performance than by the wholesale replacement of hard disk drives with solid state drives. For instance, the Vertex 2 SSD from California-based OCZ Technology Group with 120 gigabytes costs about $160—the same price as Intel’s 311 Series cache SSD paired with a 500-gigabyte hard disk drive, suggestive of the kind of appeal that cache SSD solutions might offer for today’s price-conscious consumers.

Cache SSDs also should prove popular for enterprise notebooks, allowing for more noticeable performance improvements than a top-line microprocessor or additional dynamic random access memory (DRAM). While prices for cache SSDs are still not low enough for widescale mainstream adoption, the next few years will see more pressure coming from ultrabooks, along with even more affordable “smartbooks” that incorporate mobile architectures and low-cost operating systems, IHS believes.

A rival to cache SSD is the hybrid hard disk drive, which looks like a regular hard disk drive but uses embedded NAND as a cache on top of the usual DRAM cache. Both cache and hybrid drives have the option to utilize high densities of multilevel-cell (MLC) NAND, but only cache SSDs have an announced roadmap thus far. Being modular, cache SSD solutions also are inherently more robust and scalable when compared to the novel, one-piece nature of hybrid hard disk drives. The hybrid disk drive is an effort spearheaded by giant storage player Seagate Technology, exemplified by its Momentus XT product.

While cache SSDs had only a small presence in the storage industry in 2011, their impact in the coming years will become increasingly significant. In particular, the cache drive segment will be the primary reason behind the increased shipment growth of solid state drives, projected to jump to 46 million units this year, up from 17 million in 2011.

IHS iSuppli

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