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The Flash Factor for Consumer Devices: Will NAND Flash and Hard Disk Storage Coexist or Fight to the Death?

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By Steve Leibson for Denali Software


If you spend a lot of time reading and thinking about solid-state drives (SSDs), you may have gotten the impression that NAND Flash storage is at odds with hard-disk storage--that it's a winner-take-all situation. In his keynote at last week's pre-CES Storage Visions 2010 conference in Las Vegas, storage analyst Tom Coughlin dispelled that notion with some cogent slides and some insightful analysis. Coughlin founded the Storage Visions conference; he's the chairman of the annual Flash Memory Summit; and is the author of Digital Storage in Consumer Electronics published by Newnes Press in 2008. According to Coughlin’s free companion White Paper Flash & HDD -- Symbiosis, or Survival of the Fittest (published under his Objective Analysis market-research banner), Flash-based consumer applications such as personal music and video players, digital still cameras, and camcorders actually contribute to additional sales for hard disk drives (HDDs).


Coughlin began his keynote remarks with the following forecast slide, which shows the shipped storage capacity for optical disk drives (ODDs), HDDs, and NAND Flash devices from 2006 through 2014. HDDs will still be carrying the bulk of the capacity load by the year 2014 but NAND Flash’s storage share will grow significantly, to 274 exabytes of storage shipped compared to 427 exabytes of storage for HDDs. (One exabyte equals one billion Gbytes.) Note that Coughlin's prediction suggests that 2014 will be the first year that NAND Flash annual shipped capacity will exceed the annual shipped capacity of optical drives.


Coughlin graph exabytes shipper for consumer

How do these immense numbers arise and where's the symbiosis between HDDs and NAND Flash memory? In his White Paper, Coughlin lists three examples of consumer applications where NAND Flash sales depend on and support HDD sales: digital still cameras (DSCs), personal music and video players (PMPs), and Flash-based camcorders.


According to Coughlin's White Paper, the average DSC user shoots an average of 549 photos per year and the average photo size is 4.7 Mbytes. That's roughly 2.6 Gbytes of photos per DSC user per year that needs storage. DSC and camera phone sales are rising at 5% per year, the average image size as measured in Mpixels is growing at 25% per year, and the number of photos that DSC and camera phone users are generating appears to be rising at a rate of 24% per year. Do the math and you'll find that the amount of storage needed to hold these photographs is increasing at a compound rate of 63% per year, based on Coughlin’s assumptions. As a result, almost two million drives per year will be sold to store digital images in 2014.


Couglin notes a similar symbiosis for HDDs with respect to PMPs. He writes that the average PMP owner's music and video storage needs are roughly 3:1 for HDD and PMP storage space. With the average PMP storage capacity now at 4 Gbytes, that's presently 12 Gbytes of HDD storage for each Flash-based playback device. In addition, most downloaded music and video must pass through a PC’s HDD (internal or external) before ending up on the PMP, which makes the HDD's existence that much more critical to PMP use. Again using some simple growth assumptions, Coughlin expects that PMPs will drive incremental HDD sales of 42 million just for music and video storage by 2014.


Using similar scenarios, Coughlin predicts that Flash-based camcorders will drive sales of an additional three million HDD sales in 2014 and online (cloud-based) storage for consumer images, video, and music will drive sales of an another incremental two million HDDs in 2014. The total comes to nearly 50 million incremental HDD sales annually--about 5% of total HDD sales--by the year 2014 as shown in the following figure. That’s symbiosis.


HDD's Supporting Consumer FLASH

And what does NAND Flash get from this relationship? Coughlin posits that the availability of inexpensive HDD storage encourages the sale of DSCs, PMPs, Flash-based camcorders, and other Flash-based multimedia consumer products. In the case of camcorders, he goes even further, claiming that a majority of the projected Flash-based camcorder sales “would never be sold if hard drives weren’t available.” That’s symbiosis.


“Altogether,” writes Coughlin in his White Paper, “our projected 2.2 exabytes of Flash memory [sales] in 2014 (estimated to be 59% of the total consumer Flash demand) would be significantly smaller if HDDs were not available to support them.” That truly is symbiosis.


So if you were thinking that Flash in the form of SSDs and other Flash-based storage arrays were going to kill off HDDs in the near future, Coughlin would strongly disagree. He sees a long, cooperative future ahead for the two technologies and he has published data publicly to back up that claim.

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