Forget MLC vs SLC; it's going to be TLC vs MLC soon

The NAND flash memory scene is already an alphabet soup, with SLC, MLC, eMLC and now TLC to contend with.

Flash is flavour of the month/year in enterprise storage, because of its ability to rapidly deliver the likes of virtual desktops and servers, as well as processing high-performance transactional databases.

You may have recently got to grips with the distinctions between MLC and SLC. In fact, we know that many of you have because our explainers on MLC vs SLC are among our most-read pages month after month.

That may be about to change, however, as the flash market evolves.

Namely, SLC seems to be all set to effectively fade from the flash acronym lexicon, while TLC enters it.

SLC – or single level cell – is the best-performing and most durable of the NAND flash types. It’s also the most expensive per GB. And while many flash storage system vendors offer SLC, take-up seems to be far slower.

That is, admittedly, from the decidedly non-scientific viewpoint of a storage journalist to whom vendors are keen to trumpet customer wins. But what I see on a regular basis is the use of MLC/eMLC flash, which has had its shortcomings addressed by clever software error correction etc.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that TLC – triple level cell flash – is creeping up as an enterprise flash option.  What’s the evidence?

Samsung Semiconductor launched TLC-based flash products late last year. And speaking to the CEO flash array maker Pure Storage, Scott Dietzen, last week, he indicated it was only a matter of time (or more precisely, cost) until TLC makes an impression on the enterprise storage market.

The read latency of TLC is now nearly as good as MLC. Samsung pitches its TLC products for heavily read-intensive use cases, such as streaming media, for example. Dietzen expects TLC and MLC to be used in a tiered fashion in enterprise storage when the price of the former reaches two thirds of the latter.

That might not be too long. A quick look at flash market analyst sites such as the Taiwanese inSpectrum show the contract price for 128GB of MLC at an average of $8.72 while the same capacity TLC is about 75% of that at $6.60.

As the proportion of TLC flash manufacturing increases that price will decrease. Perhaps we’ll see that 66% hit this year and TLC-based storage products emerge.

I think it’s time to get writing that TLC vs MLC article.

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