M&T: Mr. Haidn, you have been a distributor and system integrator of Advantech embedded computer technology for a long time and have over 25 years of experience in the design-in of embedded computing boards and modules. Until today, the distribution of storage technology has never been your focus. Are there any reasons why you are expanding your offering now?
Haidn: There are several dimensions to the extension of our cooperation with Advantech to include industrial SSDs. First, we want to offer our customers and interested parties even more from a single source, and in this context we have recognized the increased demand for high-quality industrial storage technology. Another important driving force is Advantech’s desire to strengthen its local reach with partners such as Aaronn. After all, we have a very high density of embedded computing providers in Germany, and Advantech wants to maintain and expand its leading position here in cooperation with partners such as Aaronn Electronic. However, there is also a growing demand for advice on the selection and use of SSDs.
M&T: Why is this demand increasing?
Haidn: Not so long ago, SSDs were only required for particularly high-end applications. Standard bread-and-butter applications used classic hard drives. Today, SSDs have become much more affordable. As a result, there are significantly more application areas, and the greater variety of applications increases the need for advice on selecting suitable industrial SSDs.
M&T: Are SSDs not always per se suited for industrial use?
Haidn: Compared to hard disk drives they are certainly less susceptible to shock and vibration. But – just as with classic HDDs – there are also significant differences. Let me describe the requirements based on the hierarchy of our customers’ needs: The question of long-term availability is a top priority for our customers, closely followed by product lifecycle management. Advantech SSDs, for example, are available for at least three years from launch, and even the smallest modification is documented via product change notifications. Both aspects are extremely important for our customers. The option to customize the SSDs and/or freeze the firmware is also highly significant. Other key factors are high temperature range and data security demands – both in terms of power failures and protection against unauthorized data loss. In this context, we offer customers comprehensive software support with features such as Flash Look, Security ID and Emergency Erase for highest security levels. Last but not least, power consumption also plays an important role in the SSD decision process.
M&T: Does Advantech offer everything that’s available in the SSD market? There must be demands you can’t meet.
Haidn: Of course. It’s better to buy a 512 GB SSD for 100 Euro from one of the big consumer electronics retailers. No embedded SSD manufacturer can compete with them on that account. But for embedded SSDs, which distinguish themselves in all the above-mentioned areas through extended functionalities, Advantech’s offering is extremely comprehensive – not least because of the company’s leading position in embedded computer technology. Besides, the quality of the Advantech SSDs is excellent: For example, the defect rate for the 630 series is less than 0.1 percent.
M&T: Can you give us a brief overview of the current SSD portfolio?
Haidn: The Advantech SQFlash product range includes a wide range of flash memory products, including enterprise-grade high-end SSDs. In total, we currently offer no less than 332 different flash products from Advantech. It is our task to advise which of these solutions matches the individual need best. The available storage capacity spans from 1 gigabyte to currently 2 terabytes in eight different form factors – from the 2.5-inch format to highly compact Micro SSDs, with 2.5-inch, M.2 and mSATA currently being the most popular choices. The interface technologies range from SD, IDE and SATA to PCI Express. The temperature range can be specified as required. Here, we position ourselves in the industrial and extended temperature ranges from 0°C to 70°C and -40°C to 85°C respectively. The type of flash is another important criterion; possible choices include SLC, MLC, Ultra-MLC, and 3D NAND, for example. In my view, this is an issue which requires a lot of consultation. The other parameters can usually be derived from the application requirements.
M&T: What are the trends?
There is a tendency towards ever more compact system designs with ever greater capacities. For this reason, Advantech has extended its SSD product line with the latest SQFlash 640 product series in the mSATA and M.2 form factors. Both types can be mounted parallel to the motherboard or carrier board using an edge connector and secured with screws. This makes for a very flat system design and saves a dedicated hard disk slot. By mechanically fixing the SSDs and eliminating cabling, the system design also becomes more resistant to vibrations and shocks. Another trend we see is that for certain applications customers are pushing for industrial grade 4TB and 8TB SSD’s which is on the roadmap for Q4 2018.
M&T: You recently introduced new SSDs with an incredible 1 TB for the extended temperature range. What are the applications for such extremely powerful small form factor mass storage devices?
Haidn: The extended temperature range of -40°C to +85°C is critical in outdoor and in-vehicle applications, and such high storage capacity with 6.0 Gbps performance in the mSATA and M.2 SSD form factor is currently unique worldwide. We see applications in the areas of edge and fog servers that are installed in such harsh environments. They are used, for example, in video surveillance systems in the public space and Industry 4.0 servers in the factory. We see further applications in the fields of collaborative robotics and self-driving logistics vehicles, where deep learning plays a role for situational awareness.
M&T: High performance normally goes hand in hand with higher power consumption and more heat generation – especially when small form factors such as mSATA and M.2 are involved. How do you deal with such increasing hotspots?
Haidn: Advantech’s latest SQF-SMS 640 mSATA SSDs and SQF-SM8 640 M.2 SSDs use SATA 6.0 Gbps IC controller chips with a very low power consumption of only 2.6 watts. The SSDs therefore enable compact system designs with comparatively low thermal waste heat. The performance leap in storage capacity for a given space was achieved by reducing the power consumption. This allows customers to expand the memory of their cramped embedded systems without having to change the thermal design.
M&T: Are there also improvements in storage technology?
Since the second half of 2017, this new product series has been supporting not only MLC flash but also 3D V-NAND technology. Compared to planar flash technology, the advantage of 3D V-NAND technology is that it allows higher storage densities. With 3D V-NAND, the memory cells are stacked on top of each other instead of being arranged side by side. Because the individual storage cells are connected vertically, the physical lines can be wider, which means they affect each other less. This makes it possible to shrink the structure widths further without loss of data reliability, for example through crosstalk.
M&T: How long will the new SSDs be available?
Haidn: All SSDs from Advantech have an availability of at least three years from product launch. This may not sound like a long time when compared to embedded computing boards, which are often made available for 7 years or longer. However, if you look at the rapid performance leaps of recent years and the enormous growth rates forecast for the SSD market, then it is understandable that customers will want to benefit from the latest technology in three years’ time, especially as further price drops for the given performance are likely. However if our customers do require longer availability Advantech and Aaronn can easily extend the availability to 5 years.
M&T: So the current forecasts are good for your business?
Haidn: Yes, you could say that. Research and Markets currently predicts global growth of around 36 percent by 2021 . Prices are expected to fall moderately as output increases, which will result in an attractive field of activity considering the given growth rates.