Dropping cost of Flash memory makes solid-state data storage affordable for more designers

By John Keller

Solid-state data storage, which keeps electronic data in memory chips rather than on spinning magnetic or optical media, has several advantages over its magnetic and optical cousins. Solid-state storage is fast, quiet, and rugged. Until recently however, it was a lot more expensive.

That is changing, however, with the advent of relatively inexpensive Flash memory that in large volumes is going into popular commercial electronic devices such as digital cameras and portable MP3 players.

The economies of scale that such popular consumer electronics bring to solid-state Flash storage is providing a big opportunity for military and aerospace systems designers, who until now were dissuaded from using solid-state data storage by its relatively high cost.

“Certainly the cost of solid state continues to decline, and cost has always been the biggest limiting factor for data recording because it requires a lot of it,” says Tom Bohman, vice president of business development, recording solutions, at VMETRO in Houston.

“Today we can use 100 gigabytes or more of solid-state storage cost effectively, with more customers who can afford that technology,” Bohman says. VMETRO offers a variety of data recorders based on solid-state, magnetic, and optical media.

VMETRO’s customers still “will limit the amount of data they record, based on the cost of solid-state storage, but that cost continues to improve, and more customers will be able to take advantage of that.”

Military and aerospace systems designers are particularly interested in solid-state data storage, Bohman points out. “When you compare it to spinning media, the solid-state storage is lower power, and is more rugged. We can more easily accomplish extended-temperature ranges, and shock and vibration is vastly better.”

Data storage systems designers are not wasting any time in bringing new solid-state memory systems onto the market. “There has been dramatic expansion in the number of solid-state disks,” says Woody Hutsell, executive vice president at Texas Memory Systems in Houston. “Our average sale today is close to 64 gigabytes, and customer databases are growing tremendously.”

To put the market in perspective, Hutsell says the cost of solid-state data storage over the last six years has dropped from about $10 per megabyte to about $1.50 per megabyte, and further cost decreases are expected.

Hutsell points out, however, that solid-state memory is not likely ever to match spinning magnetic media in cost. “It is still quite expensive compared to hard disks, which are pennies per megabyte,” he says.

The growing popularity of solid-state storage in commercial applications reflects clearly in the annual sales of Texas Memory. In 2000 the company sold almost exclusively into government applications but today government sales represent only about 25 percent of sales, while 75 percent goes into commercial applications, Hutsell says.

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