Micron's 232-layer NAND is a game changer for database workloads

Faster, higher capacity, and cheaper per gig. What more could you ask for? Oh yeah, endurance?

Analysis Micron’s newly launched 232-layer TLC NAND modules could be a boon for data-intensive workloads like database operations and analytics.

According Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth, the underlying technology will dramatically reduce the cost of deploying ever larger and higher-performance workloads on SSD storage arrays — a win for a variety of datacenter tasks.

A quick scan over the speeds and feeds reveal why. Micron says its 232-layer TLC NAND is capable of 2.4GB/s of IO speed, 50 percent more than current-gen, 176-layer products, while offering twice the write and 77 percent higher read bandwidth. The process also achieves a substantially higher areal density of 14.6 Gbit/mm squared, enabling the company to pack up to 2TB of capacity into a package smaller than a postage stamp.

To achieve this, Micron is using a 3D NAND, a technology that vertically stacks the memory in layers to achieve greater capacities. According to Micron Corporate VP of Storage Jeremy Werner, the technology is akin to building a skyscraper of storage.

“Micron’s ability to scale and build effectively higher skyscrapers has allowed us to be more efficient than anyone else in the industry,” he said on a podcast with Moor Insights and Strategy’s Patrick Moorhead this week.

This isn’t a soft launch either, the technology is already in volume production, with Micron’s consumer-focused Crucial P2, P3, P3 Plus, and P5 Plus SSDs being among the first to implement the higher-density process. Put together, the 232-layer version of Crucial’s P5 plus SSD would deliver up to 10GB/s writes and 11.68GB/sec reads, according to our sister site Blocks and Files.

A win for data-intensive applications

It’s this combination of higher storage density and performance that Unsworth says will pay dividends in the datacenter, especially in performance and latency-sensitive applications like large databases.

“Cheaper, more cost-effective flash helps all applications, but it certainly allows database and analytics environments to have a bigger tier of hot, high-performance flash storage,” Unsworth said.

Databases rely heavily on consistent, low-latency access to data, making SSD storage a far better alternative to spinning rust. Very few database workloads are still run on hard drives for this very reason, Unsworth explained. However, even with recent advances in 3D NAND — the technology underlying Micron’s latest chips — SSDs remain expensive compared to slower rotational media.

“Nearline drives still have a superior dollar per gigabyte advantage over NAND. A 20TB nearline drive is about a penny per gig,” he said, adding that Micron’s latest process will likely cost in the neighborhood of 5-7 cents per gigabyte.

While Micron’s 232-layer NAND won’t spell the end of hard disks from a price standpoint, they do have them beat when it comes to sheer capacity and performance.

Today, enterprise SSDs can be had in capacities up to 32TB, with some custom products going well beyond that. At 2TB per package, Unsworth says 48TB or even 64TB SSDs could soon be available for mainstream deployment. By comparison, the largest capacity enterprise hard disks top out at 26TB at the moment.

Fewer, higher capacity drives have the benefit of reducing power consumption and cooling requirements, he added.

Despite estimates putting Micron’s SSD performance in the neighborhood of 10-11GB/sec, the SSDs still aren’t fast or low latency enough to eliminate the need for in-memory databases like Redis, Unsworth noted.

“DRAM is still going to be much, much, much faster because it's sitting on the memory bus, whereas flash SSDs, you're gonna have some sort of interface, like a PCIe Gen 3.0, probably Gen 4.0 now, soon Gen 5.0,” he said. That's nice, but that can also introduce latency and with databases, its all about latency.”

Don’t get too excited yet

And that’s not the only problem customers should be aware of. While you’ll be able to stroll into your local big-box electronics store and pickup one of Micron’s speedy new SSDs within the year, it’s going to take a little while before they find their way into OEM appliances.

“They already announced the 232 layer a few months ago, but now they actually have it in a product that you and I can buy, which is their Crucial drives,” Unsworth said. “But that’s bought through an aftermarket channel. That hasn’t gone through OEM qualification.”

He estimates it could be the second half of 2023 before we start seeing Micron’s 232-layer NAND make its way to the OEM market.

Another question left unanswered is whether Micron’s performance or capacity gains will be backed up by improved reliability or data retention. The fact Micron hasn’t mentioned write endurance at launch doesn’t help here.

But rest assured known that while Micron is the first to bring a 200-plus layer NAND module to market, it won’t be the last. Rivals Samsung and YMTC are slated to bring comparable products in the near future.

What’s more, if a recent TrendForce report is to believed, the added competition, combined with plummeting demand could push NAND flash pricing even lower as manufacturers strike deals with their distributors to move product.

TrendForce analysts expect NAND flash pricing will fall 8-13 percent as a whole over the next quarter. The enterprise SSD market will be insulated somewhat from these ill effects, but is still expect to see prices decline 5-10 percent. ®

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