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Apple's Mac move could spur PCIe flash flurry in other notebooks, desktops

PCIe flash storage tech in MacBook Air is 45% faster than previous generations

Apple was first to use Intel's Thunderbolt I/O interface on laptops. The company also chose to create its own version of a hybrid drive for Macs rather than use one of several all-in-one offerings available from third party vendors.

So when Apple Monday announced another first -- that the new MacBook Air will include native PCIe flash storage technology -- some industry pundits speculated that other hardware makers will follow suit.

"It's coming," said Joseph Unsworth, research vice president for NAND Flash & SSD at Gartner.

Michael Yang, an analyst at memory and storage research firm IHS iSuppli, said that while Apple's move is more evolutionary than revolutionary (PCIe flash cards for servers have been around for years), the addition of native PCIe flash in the Mac Pro and MacBook Air "officializes" the technology for the masses.

The cost of flash has plummeted in recent years. Once a luxury, solid state drives (SSDs) now sell for under $1 per gigabyte.

Today, most desktop and laptop manufacturers offer flash in the form of a SATA-connected SSD option in their systems. Once an expensive upgrade, vendors such as Apple charge about $100 for a 128GB SSD in a MacBook Pro. The upgrade provides a significant performance boost over hard drives.

PCIe-based flash takes solid-state performance to new levels.

Serial ATA, the most common interface for consumer NAND flash products, communicates through a high-speed serial cable over two pair of conductors. PCIe uses a switch architecture, which has multiple end points to allow the sharing of one endpoint with multiple end devices, according to IHS analyst Fang Zhang.

For example, Apple's Mac Pro will boast 1.25GBps reads and 1.0GBps writes. The best consumer SATA III SSDs today offer about 550MB/sec speeds, or about half that of PCIe flash.

"The benefits to a professional user is obvious and gives Apple more bragging rights in the art and publishing segment where it has been traditionally strong," Yang said.

The flash storage in the MacBook Air is now up to 45% faster than the previous generation. The MacBook Air is available with up to 512GB of flash, and, according to AnandTech, has performance that approaches a mind-blowing 800MB/sec throughput.

The 11-in MacBook Air model comes standard with twice the capacity of previous models - 128GB -- but still starts at starts at $999.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said Apple has already proven it can to a better job than other vendors at integrating solid-state storage with an operating system.

In fact, Apple is the number one consumer of flash technology, according to IHS.

And, Gottheil said, Apple never misses an opportunity to upsell.

"At the higher end of their notebook line they sure want to look for every possible excuse for people to spend the kind of dollars they ask for those things," Gottheil said. "So assuming the power requirements are manageable for a laptop... yeah, they'll throw everything into their top of the line notebooks."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, send e-mail to [email protected] or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed .

Read more about cloud storage in Computerworld's Cloud Storage Topic Center.

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