Getty Images

SSD, flash memory advances to see slow walk to market

New SSDs and CXL memory modules were on display at the 2023 Flash Memory Summit, but it might take market adjustments, new infrastructure and time to reap the benefits.

Cutting-edge SSDs and memory modules for larger memory volumes are being unveiled, but new infrastructure and better market conditions stand in the way of fast adoption.

At this month's Flash Memory Summit (FMS), vendors showcased new memory technologies including third-generation PCIe 5.0 SSDs from Kioxia, a 256 TB SSD from Samsung and new memory modules from Micron. But thanks to market conditions, it could be nearly a year before enterprise customers start to see these new technologies in products, according to Thomas Coughlin, president of analyst firm Coughlin Associates.

"My guess would be that at a time of extraordinarily bad financials is not the time to put something into production that will result in initially poor yields," he said.

Other experts pointed to infrastructure updates needed for full benefits of the new memory technologies.

Denser, faster SSDs

Looking the farthest ahead, Samsung's 256 TB quad-level cell petabyte-scale SSD (PBSSD) is aimed at AI workloads.

While 256 TB exceeds any SSDs currently available, enterprises will have to wait to take full advantage of it for a couple of reasons, according to Jim Handy, general director and semiconductor analyst at Objective Analysis. First, Samsung said the PBSSD was a future product, showcasing only the architecture along with a description; second, the interface is currently inefficient for the SSD.

"There is a little bit of a contest as to how much storage you can put behind a slow interface," Handy said.

Kioxia CD8P SSDs.
The CD8P is the second PCIe 5.0 SSD from Kioxia, with the promise of more performance and high capacity.

While the PCIe 5.0 interface itself isn't slow, it does have an upper limit on how much data can pass through at any given time, he said. This large amount of expensive and high-speed NAND will need a future interface that makes it efficient to use.

Samsung also unveiled the PM9D3a 2.5-inch server SSD, which uses PCIe 5.0 and comes in up to 15.36 TB of capacity. It will likely come to market ahead of the 256 TB PBSSD and is slated to bring improved performance and power efficiency.

Kioxia added to its offerings the CD8P series of SSDs, which is aimed at the PCIe 5.0 market. Kioxia's CD8, unveiled last year, was optimized for the PCIe 4.0 market. But the CD8P supports general-purpose server workloads, claiming random read performance of 2 million IOPS, and capacities up to 30.72 TB. It comes in both E3.S and U.2 form factors.

Western Digital released its Ultrastar DC SN655 NVMe SSD in conjunction with FMS. The drive, which is ready for use now, is a PCIe 4.0, U.2/U.3 drive and comes in capacities up to 15.36 TB.

This was the next evolutionary step for Western Digital, according to Coughlin. While PCIe 3.0 was the dominant interface for nearly a decade, 4.0 has been widely adopted as 5.0 gets its footing, with 6.0 on the horizon.

"There is an awful lot of PCIe 4.0 out there, and people will be using it for a while," Coughlin said.

Memory modules expand memory for CXL

Other products unveiled at FMS that will be delayed in coming to market are advances in Compute Express Link (CXL) memory modules, which use a PCIe interface. Although they outwardly appear as SSDs, CXL modules house memory and not NAND.

Micron CZ120 memory modules.
The Micron CZ120 is the newest CXL memory module allowing for large volumes of memory beyond the limits of the DIMM slots.

In early August, Micron Technology unveiled its CZ120 module in 128 GB and 256 GB capacities to expand capacity beyond the DIMM slots in a server, according to Ryan Baxter, senior director of marketing at Micron. The modules are designed for workloads such as in-memory databases or AI training and inference, which need large amounts of memory capacity and bandwidth.

The modules are designed to be more cost-effective than buying the same amount of DRAM, but being a memory product, they still come at a premium.

While there are ways to use the memory modules now, such as combined technology from MemVerge and XConn or recently launched servers from Supermicro, there is still a barrier for mass use.

"For both enterprise and data center application, there will be interest in the [CXL memory modules], but we probably won't see a lot of volume until next year," Coughlin said.

What about now?

CXL and PCIe 5.0 standards were first released in 2019. The current generation of server CPUs supports these 4-year-old standards, as do new servers released earlier this year. But there isn't a rush to adopt them even if it means getting the benefits of CXL and PCIe 5.0, according to Dave Raffo, an analyst at Futurum Group.

"A server is not a new iPhone where people line up to get them the day they come out," Raffo said.

New server purchases have to be justified for business use and budgeted, he said. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, a backlog of server products means there is little need to buy new ones.

Most bleeding-edge technology is future-looking, according to Doug Milburn, co-founder and president of 45Drives, a data storage company. Go too far into the future, and products start looking like projects.

"Customers need storage, not projects," Milburn said.

Once industry support moves behind something, it becomes mainstream, he said.

That's where CXL and PCIe 5.0 are today. All of the major storage and server vendors support CXL, but it has not become mainstream just yet, according to Coughlin.

"CXL is going to start to show up in systems by next year," Coughlin said. "It's definitely something that is happening sooner rather than later."

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

Next Steps

Future of storage lies in collaboration, unified management

How AI in SSDs could help enterprises

Dig Deeper on Flash memory and storage

Disaster Recovery
Data Backup
Data Center
Sustainability and ESG
Close