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Micron breaks the 200-layer barrier in NAND

Micron is shipping a 232-layer NAND that brings higher density and performance with potentially lower costs, starting on the client side before moving to the data center.

Micron is the first vendor to push past 200 layers in TLC NAND, with this increase in wafer density potentially lowering flash storage costs, according to experts.

This week, the vendor jumped from 176 layers to 232 layers while shrinking its overall size and increasing energy efficiency. Micron will use the new NAND in all its flash storage products, starting in consumer drives and moving up to embedded and data center storage.

The storage market is hungry for lower-priced SSD options, and Micron's higher-layer NAND will enable that, according to Joseph Unsworth, an analyst at Gartner.

"Micron continues its technology leadership with the first commercialization of a 232-layer into a product," Unsworth said. "This follows up on its leadership from its 176-layer debut."

Layering on benefits

Moving to 232-layer NAND allows Micron to pack more density into an even smaller package, according to Alvaro Toledo, vice president and general manager of data center storage at Micron. The new NAND architecture is 50% higher-density than previous generations.

This is the highest density per square millimeter of any TLC NAND, Toledo said, with the ability to store up to 2 TB in a package smaller than a U.S. postage stamp. This can result in savings from a total-cost-of-ownership perspective, as it places more storage in a smaller space, he said.

Unsworth agreed. "The average consumer -- or even IT professionals -- isn't even aware of layer counts, but for us technical folks this is important because it demonstrates the path to cheaper flash technology used across a variety of applications," he said.

This lowers the price per gigabyte and introduces higher capacity end products or equal capacity at lower acquisition costs, Unsworth said. The lower cost can make its way to a lower price for the end user, but the actual price has several metrics that will depend on the market at the time.

Micron 232-layer NAND
Micron's new 232-layer NAND stack for flash storage.

Denser, smaller, faster

Along with higher capacity in a smaller package and potentially lower costs, the 232-layer NAND comes with greater quality of service and better parallelism, which translates into better performance, Toledo said. The dies are now up to 2.4 GBps ONFi internal data transfer rates, up from 1.6 GBps on the 176-layer NAND. The new NAND has six planes, the highest number of planes for TLC flash.

The average consumer … isn't even aware of layer counts, but for us technical folks this is important because it demonstrates the path to cheaper flash technology.
Joseph UnsworthAnalyst, Gartner

The higher planes drive better performance, Unsworth said. This is something that OEMs are looking for when qualifying technology.

As far as how internal data transfer rates apply to real-world use, the jury is still out, Unsworth said. There are a lot of steps in the process of how this translates into what users see, including the device used and interface to the host.

"This will be faster, but mileage may vary … until the real-world benchmarks are out," he said.

A wait for the data center

The new 232-layer NAND is now shipping to consumer products through Micron's Crucial brand, according to the company. It is a matter of starting smaller and growing, Alvaro said. The company plans for mass production by the end of the year, as Micron's fabs switch from 176 layers to 232 layers.

Price is still a critical concern in the data center, Gartner's Unsworth said. Reducing costs is standard practice in the memory industry, and it will be interesting to see how other vendors respond, both from a competitive perspective as well as a potential oversupply situation for the remainder of this year, he said.

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