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Kioxia looks back at 35 years of NAND -- and at what's ahead

Kioxia invented NAND memory 35 years ago. At FMS, the company highlighted the technological achievements of NAND while introducing new SSDs and protocols.

While Intel has discontinued Optane, Kioxia is recognizing 35 years of NAND flash memory, which it invented in 1987 when the company was still known as Toshiba Memory Corp.

But Kioxia isn't just looking back at how NAND has influenced the state of the flash memory market -- it is also continuing to push forward. At the recent Flash Memory Summit (FMS), Kioxia unveiled several advances, including a new software-defined interface for the Linux Foundation's Software-Enabled Flash technology. The open source project moves away from legacy HDD protocols by bringing customizable flash storage that better takes advantage of the technology. Kioxia also released a new PCIe Gen 5 SSD family and updated its storage class memory (SCM), FL6.

From Toshiba into Kioxia, the company has had a dedicated relationship with OEM customers, according to Don Jeanette, vice president of Trendfocus. Kioxia is looking to continue those relationships and expand to hyperscalers like Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google, as well as Facebook's parent company, Meta.

"[Kioxia is] focusing its efforts on more large-scale data center customers, driving more volume for NAND SSDs," Jeanette said.

Flashing through history

Flash memory has been around since 1959, but the invention of NOR flash in 1984 and then NAND in 1987 allowed the market to take off, as NAND provided better scalability, density and pricing than NOR, said Cameron Brett, senior director of enterprise and cloud storage marketing at Kioxia.

[Kioxia is] focusing its efforts on more large-scale data center customers, driving more volume for NAND SSDs.
Don JeanetteVice president, Trendfocus

Flash is one of the two dominant types of storage media, along with HDDs. While HDDs have a larger footprint and come at a lower price tag, NAND flash and SSDs continue to gain ground.

NAND-based SSDs made their first commercial debut in 1991, sold as an OEM under SanDisk. In 1999, the emergence of the SD card for digital imaging gave NAND technology traction, according to Scott Nelson, senior vice president and general manager of the memory business unit at Kioxia.

"This was the time where a consumer was able to get instant gratification -- the first time to really experience the mobility of content," he said.

That newly found mobility first began disrupting audio storage components like cassettes and CDs; now users could store an entire music library on a device that fit in the palm of their hand. Soon enough, flash began to work its way into laptops and notebooks, and increasingly compact form factors like M.2 led to ultralight, ultraportable notebooks, Nelson said. Flash finally touched all applications when it was integrated into mobile and IoT devices.

This infiltration into consumer tech eventually led to the data center, where flash brings benefits that HDDs can't, such as performance, notably lower latency and density, Nelson said. The lower latency allows service providers to deliver on certain service-level agreements and density increases, he said.

And flash technology continues to evolve.

Looking to the future

At FMS, several vendors announced new flash products. These products included high-capacity SSDs, smart SSDs from companies such as ScaleFlux, and PCIe Gen 5 drives from Samsung and Kioxia.

Kioxia also expanded its PCIe Gen 5 SSD line with the introduction of CM7 -- an enterprise version of its CD7 and its third Gen 5 drive specific to the data center. The CM7, which comes in both 2.5-inch and EDSFF form factors, also marks the second data center drive using its fifth-generation BiCS 3D TLC NAND.

Kioxia CM7 SSDs
Kioxia celebrates 35 years of NAND and releases new CM7 data center drives.

Trendfocus' Jeanette noted that the PCIe Gen 5 interface isn't ready to be fully utilized, but vendors like Kioxia that are releasing their products now will be ready for the transition when it happens.

"They're dedicated to making sure they are ready with their products when major customers are ready and willing to take them," Jeanette said.

A niche has developed for SCM, and without Optane, other products such as Kioxia's take on SCM, FL6, could fill the void, said Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates.

"With Optane phasing out, there are going to be some interesting opportunities with faster SSDs, seeing more SLC [single-level cell] used for speed," he said.

The FL6 SCM product uses SLC NAND for higher performance and endurance. In its second generation of FL6, Kioxia introduced a multi-level cell (MLC) version, which will add an even higher density and lower the costs. Kioxia's MLC-based FL6 product is not yet available for purchase, and the company did not cite future availability.

Flash takes its own seat at the table

Along with new products and SCM, Kioxia is working with the Linux Foundation to introduce software-enabled flash technology through an open source API from Linux and specialized hardware from Kioxia. Using PCIe and NVMe, the two companies claim that this can potentially uncouple flash from HDD protocols, allowing the technology to hit great potential.

The SAS and SATA protocols remain the main protocols for HDDs and are with many SSDs using the protocols as well, Jeanette said. SSD makers have branched out and really embraced PCIe and NVMe.

"PCIe is by far the highest share and exabytes of any protocol out there for SSDs," Jeanette said.

Leaning more into PCIe and NVMe makes sense for certain markets, but like anything new, adoption takes time, Coughlin said. A lot of drives use PCIe and NVMe, but there is still room for legacy interfaces such as SAS.

"SAS is not going away. It's going to take a long time if it ever does -- there's still a demand for it," Coughlin said.

Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget news writer covering file and block storage hardware and private clouds. He previously worked at StorageReview.com.

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