SAN JOSE, Calif. — Startup InnoGrit debuted a set of three controllers for solid-state drives (SSDs), including one for data centers that embeds a neural-network accelerator. They enter a crowded market with claims of power and performance advantages over rivals.

The chips emerge as NAND flash prices are showing signs of bottoming out. OEMs and data centers are expected to take advantage of the lower prices to continue the shift from hard-disk storage in notebooks and servers that require performance, power, or size advantages.

In data centers, the adoption of SSDs is “happening fast, especially with last year’s price drops,” said Zining Wu, who co-founded InnoGrit in October 2016 after 17 years at Marvell, where he rose to be its chief technology officer. “When we talk to data center customers, all their new designs are flash-based.”

At the high end, InnoGrit’s Tacoma uses four PCI Gen4 interfaces to support 16 NAND channels, delivering up to 1.5 million I/O operations/second (IOPS) at less than 5-W peak power. It includes an unnamed mid-level Arm core as well as an implementation of NDLA, an open-source inference accelerator from Nvidia.

“With this combination, we can do intelligent processing such as data labeling, using the tool chain offered by Nvidia, or some savvy customers will put in their own firmware,” said chief executive Wu.

Last fall, Samsung announced an SSD that embeds a Xilinx Zynq FPGA to handle processing for a variety of AI, database, and video apps.

The Tacoma uses a 64+8-bit data bus, as well as DDR3/4 and LPDDR3/4 DRAMs, and provides AES-256, SHA3, and ECC security. The mid-tier Rainier controller is a smaller version of the design, supporting eight NAND channels and 32- and 16-bit data buses for low-end servers or high-end notebooks.

Rainier delivers up to 1 million IOPS at less than 3-W peak power. Both Rainier and Tacoma support sequential reads at up to 7 GB/s and sequential writes at 6.1 GB/s.

Wu claims that he has a lead on competitors across several figures of merit. However, in early July, rival Phison Electronics of Taiwan announced an eight-channel SSD controller using four PCIe Gen 4 links.

For its part, Marvell announced three SSD controllers roughly similar to those from InnoGrit. However, they all support just four NAND channels and they do not specify any hardware AI acceleration or peak power ratings.

The startup created Compact Flash Express, M.2, and USB reference designs for its controllers. (Image: InnoGrit)
The startup created Compact Flash Express, M.2, and USB reference designs for its controllers. (Image: InnoGrit)

At the low end, InnoGrit’s Shasta controller is a DRAM-less SoC made in a 28-nm node for client systems. It uses two PCIe Gen3 links to deliver up to 250,000 IOPS at 0.9-W peak power. A planned upgrade will use four PCIe links to double performance at up to 1.35-W peak power.

Shasta is currently shipping in volume with about six design wins. The Tacoma and Rainier controllers are sampling.

All of the chips support today’s 2D and 3D NAND up to QLC levels. They also support Toshiba’s new XL-Flash, a low-latency chip, but not rival Samsung’s Z-NAND. The Tacoma controller sports a 10-µs read latency using XL-Flash.

The venture-backed startup has offices in China, Taiwan, and the U.S. but claims that it is no relation to Taiwan’s InnoDisk, an SSD maker in Taiwan. It has closed a Series B round that will cover getting all of its products into production, but Wu declined to name its investors or the amount of funding that it has received.

“There are so many players chasing this space,” said Gregory Wong, principal analyst of Forward Insights, who tracks the top dozen of perhaps 40 controller makers, many of them in China.

They serve a market of 215 million client and 30 million server SSDs that shipped last year. The client controllers sell for as little as $2, with server chip prices extending to about $15, Wong estimated.

More than half the market is served by drives from NAND vendors using their own chips and controllers. “It’s a tough market,” said Wong, noting that the merchant players aim to emulate Sandforce, a startup acquired in 2011 by the former LSI.

“It costs about $50 million to develop a controller,” said Jim Handy, principal analyst of Objective Analysis. “Smaller SSD companies can’t afford that, but it makes a lot of sense for an independent company to make controllers they can sell to many of the smaller customers. If they get lucky, a larger SSD maker like Intel, Micron, or Western Digital/SanDisk will like their controller and stop making their own.”

Wong of Forward Insights said that channel prices for NAND flash are already rising. He predicted that OEM prices will bottom out by the end of the year.