Capacity has always been an issue for solid state drives: Each chip is expensive, and there’s limited space on a drive to contain them. Recently, Samsung has tackled the problem with V-NAND, or vertical NAND, which stacks memory for greater storage capacities. Intel and Micron are getting into that game as well, and the solution they’ve come up with, called 3D NAND, is even denser.
The technology is easy to understand, on a basic level. Traditional memory chips are built on a single plane; in a 3D NAND architecture, memory cells are stacked vertically. Doing so greatly increases the potential data capacity of a single chip. Intel and Micron cite a maximum capacity of 48GB per memory die. Since solid state drives house multiple chips, this puts the maximum capacity around 3.5 terabytes for a small M.2 drive (as you might find in a thin laptop, or Intel’s crazy-cool NUC) — and over ten terabytes for a 2.5-inch SSD.
That, of course, is an incredible boost in capacity over today’s largest SSDs, which can be found no larger than four terabytes in a 2.5-inch drive. Intel’s 3D NAND process makes it possible to pack at least twice the storage in the same space, and it’ll probably do so while reducing the overall cost-per-gigabyte of the drive. But not just big drives will benefit. This technology also will help spur development of quicker and quicker external SSDs. Samsung, for example, put its VNAND technology to use in the Portable SSD T1, which fits in the palm of your hand but packs up to a terabyte of capacity.
Those who follow hard drive technology closely will be interested to know the 3D NAND implementation used by Intel and Micron uses floating gate technology rather than the charge-trap approach by Samsung, which was considered necessary to make stacked memory work. The use of an older technology to accomplish the same feat may help Intel and Micron produce hardware at lower cost than its competitors, and that will of course mean good things for anyone who wants to buy an SSD.
Retail products aren’t a dream, either. Chips are sampling to vendors, and mass production is set to pick up in late 2015. Intel itself is to release a drive based on 3D NAND, but the technology will show up in drives from other manufacturers as well.
Samsung took the lead in this area with its introduction of V-NAND last year, and was first to market with drives based on it, but now it has real competition. We can’t wait to see which of these technology titans is first to put a 10TB solid state drive on the market.