Sun: standards essential for solid state storage situation

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Hardware OEM and server/storage provider Sun Microsystems issued a statement today, calling on solid-state drive (SSD) manufacturers and developers to jointly form a standards body that would assume responsibility for future SSD development. Standard hard drive development is already covered by such groups, and the mandates of one or more of these preexisting organizations could also be extended to cover SSD development.

At the moment, there are a number of independent standardization efforts occurring simultaneously. The same group that created the ATA standard, Technical Committee T13, is already working on an SSD standard, while organizations like the Joint Electronic Device Engineering Council (JEDEC) have given their own input regarding future SSD form factors. Sun, for its part, seems to favor the use of an organization like the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Organization (IDEMA). IDEMA is a global organization that sets and approves standards for virtually every component in a hard drive, including drive heads, substrates, and packaging. The organization also provides guidance on how to measure drive performance, reliability, noise, and microcontamination.

One of Sun's goals is to give various SSD manufacturers a level playing field from which to compare SSD and HDD performance. Current drive comparisons often focus on cost-per-gigabyte, and the company wants to allow for the creation of other metrics—presumably ones where SSDs do not compare so poorly against the entrenched HDD market. Comparison without first standardizing on how various terms are defined, however, creates far more problems than it solves.

A good example of this is the difference between how Intel and AMD measure thermal design power (TDP). Intel defines TDP as the value that "should be used for processor thermal solution design targets. The TDP is not the maximum power that the processor can dissipate." AMD, on the other hand, defines TDP as the maximum amount of power a processor is theoretically capable of drawing. In AMD's world, a CPU that normally consumes 55W at full load, but could consume 89W if loaded with a thermal virus is an 89W part. The practical result of this disparity is that consumers can't compare TDP values between the two companies at all without access to test results performed on equivalent hardware.

One of the best ways to guarantee continued SSD market growth is to guarantee that device manufacturers are all on the same page. Samsung wants consumers to prefer its own product, but it also has an interest in ensuring that the segment isn't polluted by products claiming performance jumps or reliability numbers based on false pretenses. Similarly, a manufacturer that brought a line of SSD products out on a lousy, uncertified substrate material might make a huge splash in the market initially, but crash and burn a year later when drives began failing at abnormally high rates. With SSD products still in their infancy, consumers panic, tromp back toward "reliable" hard drives in record numbers, and deal the fledgling storage format a blow from which it takes years to recover. If you don't think consumers would react so drastically, I'd recommend asking IBM, except Hitachi now owns that company's hard drive division.

A single organizational standard is probably the best way to spur SSD adoption and development long-term, but when that standard will form is anyone's guess. Sun is trying to move the ball along by calling for one publicly, but this type of issue has a tendency to be heavily politicized and could ultimately take several years to hash out.