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Silicon Motion upbeat on 3D NAND controller release

27 Jan 2016  | Gary Hilson

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It's still early days for 3D NAND adoption, but Silicon Motion is being proactive on the controller front in preparation of what the company sees as a transition year.

To date, said Robert Fan, VP and GM SMI U.S.A at Silicon Motion, the only vendor out in the market with 3D NAND is Samsung, but that's only in its own products. He expects other vendors, such as Micron, Intel and SK Hynix to soon have their 3D NAND pop up in SSDs.

At this year's CES, Silicon Motion introduced what Fan said is first turnkey merchant SATA SSD controller supporting 3D NAND from multiple vendors. It supports provisioning of higher capacity SSDs, from a broad range of vendors, up to 2Tbyte. Other features and characteristics of the SM2246EN for 3D MLC NAND include sequential read performance of up to 540Mbyte/s and sequential write of up to 410Mbyte/s; up to 80,000 random read IOPS and up to 75,000 random write IOPS; a proprietary; and, a configurable error correction code (ECC) engine. Fan said the controller is ideal for client SSDs in ultrabooks, laptops, tablets and HDD replacement.

Silicon Motion's controller is geared for the specific characteristics of 3D NAND, such as its larger page size and power loss protection capabilities, but Fan said for the most part designing a controller for 3D NAND is not significantly different than its 2D predecessor. "The firmware enablement is not that different," he said, noting that TLC NAND also has increased page sizes as well as ECC. "Every NAND has its own idiosyncrasies."

SATA SSD controller

At this year's CES, Silicon Motion introduced what Fan said is first turnkey merchant SATA SSD controller supporting 3D NAND from multiple vendors.

Fan anticipates that this year more vendors will start putting 3D NAND in third party devices such as SSDs, to date it has been Samsung putting its 3D NAND its own SSDs, Silicon Motion wanted to have a controller on the market that could handle anything available.

It's not just 3D NAND where Silicon Motion sees a transition occurring, said Fan. "TLC NAND is actually ramping up really well for SSDs as well." The overall transition for the coming year is MLC to TLC to 3D. "Volume is going to be MLC, TLC is going to be a large growth number, and 3D is going to catch up this year."

Last year it launched a controller for TLC NAND in anticipation of enterprise adoption, and Fan said the company will release a 3D TLC NAND controller later this year, as well as an MLC PCIe controller. He said PCIe SSDs are starting to appear in the marketplace in devices such as high-end notebooks. "SATA will still be the majority of SSDs this year."

The reason Samsung's 3D is only shipping in its SSDs, said Jim Handy, principal analyst with Objective Analysis, is that it's not performing as well as desired, and that controllers in other devices other than SSDs are not able to handle any problems. Samsung's ambition was to push through the learning curve by being first to market, he said, and it's possible it is selling product at a loss.

Handy said Toshiba and Micron are sampling chip-level products which is something that as far as he was aware Samsung wasn't yet doing. He said the whole driver behind 3D NAND is improved costs. He sees Samsung positioning it as better technology rather than promoting the cost benefits. "Really nobody is capable of producing 3D NAND flash at a production cost that's cheaper than its planar NAND counterpart."

As for controllers, Handy said Silicon Motion is making the argument for 3D NAND cost benefits, and is first out of the gate with a controller ready to handle 3D NAND flash from multiple vendors. "3D NAND performs very similarly to planar so there should no difficulties in building controllers," he said. "It's a chicken and egg situation. If 3D came out and there were no controllers it would languish."

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