Behold the blazing-fast future of storage: 60TB SSDs, 3D chips, and more

The annual Flash Media Summit gives PC enthusiasts a glimpse into the future of storage.

ssds
Credit: Michael Homnick
The biggest deal you haven't heard of

You probably haven’t heard of the Flash Media Summit, and for good reason.

The annual industry conference relentlessly focuses on a single niche—ultra-fast flash-based storage. What’s more, it does so in a way that tends to highlight the underlying technology and its potential datacenter applications more than consumer-centric applications. It’ll never garner as much coverage as CES or E3 or Computex.

But PC enthusiasts should keep an eye on the Flash Media Summit. We’ve sifted through all the announcements from this year’s conference and present here the most radical and truly exciting reveals. Many of these harbingers focus on datacenters today, but they’re a glimpse into the glorious future of storage for all users—a world where massive, ultra-fast SSDs stuffed with revolutionary 3D chips are the norm, and a world where phones pack as much onboard storage as some PCs.

samsung 32tb ssd
Samsung's 32TB SSD

Before we dive into the really crazy stuff, let’s start with SSDs. Wild SSDs, sure, but still SSDs.

Samsung made waves earlier this year when it revealed the PM1633a, a 15TB behemoth that immediately laid claim to being the world’s most spacious drive SSD. That victory proved short-lived. At the Flash Media Summit, Samsung announced a new champion with more than twice that capacity.

The secret sauce in Samsung’s whopping 32TB SSD? Its fourth-generation V-NAND technology. V-NAND, or vertical NAND, allows Samsung to stack NAND chips upward in a tower, rather than the usual method of spreading the chips out horizontally. That means you can squeeze more capacity into denser places. The fourth-gen tech stacks 64 NAND storage layers in one chip package, whereas SSDs built around third-gen V-NAND tech (like the blistering 950 Pro NVMe SSD) are limited to 48 NAND layers per chip.

And good news: If previous V-NAND proliferation is any indication, consumer SSDs powered by Samsung’s new tech should show up sooner rather than later.

lenovo tech world
Credit: Michael Kan
Lenovo's 48TB SSD board

Now for the crazy part: Samsung’s 32TB monster wasn’t even the most spacious storage being shown at the conference. Lenovo announced a new SSD storage board with a jaw-dropping 48TB of capacity, though at the last second it declined to show off the gear in the proverbial flesh.

Datacenter-centric storage boards don’t adhere to traditional SSD form factors, but Lenovo’s 48TB version is designed to fit in a space the size of two standard 2.5-inch storage drives, meaning its footprint is exceedingly modest considering the board’s capacity. It essentially consists of several of Lenovo’s prototype “Project Spark” SSDs—each the size of a DRAM module, but with 6TB of storage capacity—packaged together for increased overall capacity.

But even this beast wasn’t the most spacious at the Summit.

seagate 60tb ssd
Credit: Agam Shah
Seagate's 60TB monster

That would be a 60TB Seagate SSD. Let that sink in: A 60 freakin’ terabyte SSD.

Seagate didn’t provide many details about its majestic creation except, well, that it exists. The company hopes to start shipping it as early as next year, and eventually roll out 100TB versions in the same form factor. That form factor, by the way, fits into a hard drive-sized 3.5-inch storage slot, rather than the 2.5-inch design used by most SSDs. Nobody said squeezing in 60TB of capacity was easy.

3d xpoint die
3D Xpoint for the masses

But traditional SSDs are sooooo 2015. At the Flash Media Summit, Micron and Intel provided more info about what to expect from 3D Xpoint, the radical next-gen storage technology that’s 10 times denser than traditional memory and up to 1,000 times faster than today’s NAND storage.

We’ve known that Intel will sell consumer-ready 3D Xpoint SSDs under its Optane brand, but those won’t be the only option around. Micron plans to license 3D Xpoint to storage partners for use in consumer SSDs, under “QuantX” branding. Yay competition! Look for the first QuantX SSDs to slip into PCI-e slots, and land sometime mid-2017.

Speaking of competition, Intel stated that Optane SSDs will work in AMD-based systems as well as PCs with Intel chips. Which, well, seems pretty obvious, but it’s good to hear it said out loud. They’ll work with Macs, too.

transcend supermlc
Transcend SuperMLC

Transcend was busy showing off its recently announced SuperMLC technology, which performs an interesting trick with traditional SSD technology.

The NAND inside SSDs can store varying amount of bits per cell, but there are tradeoffs. Single-level cell (SLC) technology offers the highest performance, but least capacity; multi-level cell (MLC) tech stores two bits per cell, trading performance to increase capacity; triple-level cell (TLC) NAND swings the balance even further.

Transcend’s SuperMLC effectively programs MLC NAND to behave like SLC NAND, which cuts capacity but provides big performance and endurance boosts at a lower cost than “true” SLC chips. Interesting! At the Flash Medit Summit, Transcend revealed plans to expand beyond SSDs alone and put SuperMLC in removable media like microSD cards. Read all about it at The SSD Review.

liqid kingston ssd
The fastest SSD ever

Kingston joined forces with Liqid—a relative newcomer in the storage world—to roll out the Liqid Powered U.2. While the name might be boring, the device’s performance is anything but: The two companies claim that this is “the fastest 2.5-inch PCI-E NVMe SSD ever benchmarked.”

This U.2 SSD cranks out 835,000 4k IOPS, which basically saturates the limits of the PCI-E 3.0 x4 link, and 3.6GB/s sequential read/write speeds. That’s fast. Damned fast. “Up to twice as fast as Samsung’s face-melting 950 Pro NVMe SSD” fast—and it’ll be available in up to 3.9TB capacities.

The duo says the Liqid Powered U.2 is in the final stages of validation, and should be ready to ship later this year. It’s targeting enterprises, but enthusiast-grade motherboards already support U.2 SSDs as well. In the meantime, check out PC Perspective and SSD Review ’s coverage for more technical details and pictures of the drive in action.

micron 3d nand
Supersized smartphone storage

Finally, PCs aren’t the sole stars of the show.

Micron announced its first 3D NAND chip for mobile devices at the Flash Media Summit, with the goal of cramming more storage into smartphones—and maybe reducing reliance on SD card slots. 3D NAND is a generic term for the same underlying tech as Samsung’s V-NAND.

Micron’s first mobile 3D NAND chip is limited to 32GB of memory and based on the speedy new UFS 2.1 standard, which is still so fresh that it hasn’t been implemented in any current phones. When Micron’s storage does start to trickle into handsets, it’ll show up in mid- to high-end phones first.

hololens
The future

Still with me? That’s it for the big news out of the Flash Media Summit, but if your whistle’s wet for even more revolutionary concepts, be sure to check out PCWorld’s look at 10 enthralling visions for the future of computing. Inch by inch, day by day, our wildest sci-fi dreams are slowly becoming reality.