OAKLAND, Calif. — A Chinese startup has come out of stealth mode with promises to cut the price of solid state disk (SSD) technology in half. The company, Sage Microelectronics, is currently shipping an SSD controller IC capable of packing up to 5 terabytes on a single PCB with a standard 2.5-inch form factor.
Sage Micro’s SSD controller can address up to 5 TB of flash memory using a SATA II interface to drive 10 channels of SSD, MMC, or eMMC flash memory cards, with each channel supporting up to 512 GB of flash memory. The company aims to solve issues around fast updates in flash speeds and limited bus speeds by taking the problem to a “higher level of abstraction.”
“A single SoC controller is driving multiple channels of eMMC cards, and each MMC controller is driving multiple levels of flash die,” Sage Micro president Chris Tsu told EE Times. “Our approach has flash memory and multiple flash controllers. The controller chip addresses each of the eMMC chips individually and by doing that they can address much higher density.”
Sage developed a propriety multi-core architecture for its SSD controller with a single small RISC CPU core managing the SATA bus and additional cores that handle two memory card channel interfaces each. Sage’s S68X family of SSD controllers can support 4, 5, and 10 memory channels for less than $5 per controller.
(Source: Sage Micro)
“A proprietary controller is key in the sense of getting flash to survive in an enterprise setting,” Alan Niebel, president of WebFeet Research, told EE Times. “The overall quality may not stand up against time; it’s tough to know how good proprietary quality is.”
Sage Micro did not note the processing power behind its controllers, although speed may be the key to differentiating the company among its competitors. Jim Handy, principal analyst with Objective Analysis, said the parallel architecture in Sage’s controller is reminiscent of supercomputers and may, in fact, be really fast.
“They’ve got a bunch of controllers controlling flash chips separately, that ought to give them a bit more bandwidth. You would think that performance would scale with the number of eMMC cards,” Handy told us. “It seems if their minimum system is four eMMCs and a controller, that’s already one more processor than what Samsung has, and it should lend to higher performance.”
Tsu added that by providing a proprietary controller, Sage Micro bypasses the problem of working with flash suppliers that don’t publish internal details of controllers that can run multiple generations of flash. Those flash suppliers also have a higher price point for multiple chips than is truly necessary.
“A memory card includes underlying flash memory, and a flash controller is priced almost the same as underlying flash memory itself,” Tsu said. “eMMC should be more expensive, but it’s not. The reason is because of manufactured volume” of cellphones that need flash.
Sage Micro contracts with TSMC competitor SMIC to make its silicon, and said it can offer an SSD at $0.50 per gigabyte -- half the industry average. Additionally, Tsu said the use of JEDEC-compliant memory cards instead of discrete flash ICs enables SSD manufacturers to mix-and-match inventory to further reduce testing cost.
Sage hopes its price point, alongside its customizable controller, will enable the company to target markets larger flash providers haven’t been able to touch. Tsu said he isn’t worried about competing with larger flash vendors, because most of that market is focused on embedded systems.
“We want to dominate the low end and low capacity market in China. In the US, we’re targeting datacenters and specific applications where many of the other vendors aren’t competing. Big [flash vendors] are competing in laptop computers and very large market spaces,” Tsu said.
While Neibel said there is room for Sage to succeed in the niche industrial/commercial market -- which currently includes Apacer and Virtium -- he was a bit skeptical about the company’s staying power.
“They could make it in that marketplace, but they have to be more versatile than just the SATA II kind of interface -- they’ll need to get into different form factors like M2, and over time they will have to move to NVMe,” he said.
There is much Chinese government backing for Tsu’s vision, which came in part from the Micro Electronics Research Institute at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China, where Sage CEO Weidong Liu is a director. China wants to build its semiconductor manufacturing base.
“We’re trying to build a 100 TB SSD array network in China for schools. We are affiliated with Hangzhou Dianzi University and are trying to build a terabyte space for our architecture to demonstrate during the first quarter of next year,” Tsu told us. “A typical application is virtual desktop infrastructure. VDI is very popular in schools because students are bringing their own computers and using the cloud.”
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times