Interview OCZ - Recent history and SSD endurance

Published by Marc Büchel on 24.03.14

In the past few months OCZ has undergone quite a lot of change, whereas the buyout by Toshiba Group certainly created most headlines. A few more years back, when OCZ released their first SSDs, not all products have been as reliable as the company wanted them to be, but still, OCZ always pushed hard to make sure to stay at the forefront of technological developments, ensuring highest competitiveness. In this interview Tobias Brinkmann - Vice President, Global Marketing - and Daryl Lang - Senior Vice President Product Management - are going to answer a few questions we've always wanted to ask.

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Tobias Brinkmann and Daryl Lang

It’s only a few months back, that Toshiba bought out OCZ. What does this mean for end users and what is the benefit for business customers?

Tobias: OCZ Storage Solutions as part of the Toshiba Group is now a fully integrated SSD player which impacts our customers and the market in general in a very positive way.

What we have been missing in the recent past is the direct access to NAND which you need in the SSD market today in order to stay competitive and position yourself as a relevant player.

The SSD market is one of the fastest growing segments in the IT industry today. According to analysts the market size will be over $23 billion by 2017 so having that direct access to NAND will be a major competitive advantage.

Our goal is now to grow market share again both in the consumer and enterprise space. OCZ was among the very first companies to launch a consumer SSD back in 2008. Since then we have established a large IP and patent portfolio both through in house development and acquisitions. Our Barefoot 3 controller is one, if not the highest performing controller on the market, especially when it comes to sustained performance.

We now have all four pillars that will enable us to grow market share: a market leading in-house controller, application software, firmware and direct access to NAND.

For quite some time the brand OCZ has been associated with quality issues. What was the reason something like this happened and what did the company do to change perception?

Tobias: As I mentioned earlier, OCZ was among the very first companies to launch a consumer SSD back in 2008 and with that we were the first manufacturer to launch a number of controllers such as the SandForce for example. Being first to market certainly has benefits however you usually also have to live with a number of bugs that are eliminated over time. When you are the brand which is first to market and have a majority of the market share it will reflect negatively on your brand.

Today we are in a different position: we have all IP in-house and therefore full control of the development and manufacturing in every aspect. Our current products which are based on our Barefoot 3 controller and utilize 19nm Toshiba NAND have by far the lowest return rate of any product we have launched so far which is a confirmation of the development, testing and quality procedures we have focused on.

Throughout company history there were lots of bumps in the road. What’s been OCZ’s strategy to cope with up’s and down’s?

Tobias: Our strategy has always been to continuously innovate in the markets we were operating in. As a result of that we have accumulated a strong IP and patent portfolio. As part of the Toshiba Group, we now have all the elements required to successfully gain back market share.

The number of P/E-cycles recent NAND flash memory is to endure, is within an order of magnitude which users can actually comprehend. Rather unfortunately for the manufacturer, this number is not unbelievably high. In which ways does OCZ translate this number into years of endurance?

Daryl: NAND flash PE cycles is just the beginning of the picture in terms of drive level endurance. It’s important to understand a bit more about flash endurance first and then we can look at drive level endurance. This is a complex topic with a lot of variable. I’ll oversimplify just to keep it from being completely overwhelming. The flash specification isn’t simply a number of PE cycles, it’s a number of PE cycles with a given amount of error correction (ECC) at a given temperature, and with a fixed data retention at end of life. That’s a bit of a mouthful. For the sake of simplicity, and given that were discussing consumer grade products, lets remove temperature from the mix. Advanced ECC techniques have significant impact on overall drive endurance, OCZ like most SSD vendors today spend significant time and effort on this area. There’s no standard cookbook recipe for this, and OCZ like our competitors consider this to be “secret sauce”. Regardless of the technology and techniques ultimately some pool of raw endurance is achieved. From this starting point the SSD firmware then manages all of the NAND flash, for simplicity let’s call this housekeeping of the flash. This housekeeping process requires data to be moved around on the NAND flash, which consumes some amount of endurance. This consumption is commonly called WAF or write amplification factor. The efficiency of this process is determined by the workload that the SSD is being asked to perform, as well firmware’s algorithms. Because none of this translates into something an end customer can typically relate to, OCZ Rates its consumer grade drives in terms of the amount of data that can be sent from the host (meaning in this case the PC) to the SSD. The type of data, how its managed, and the housekeeping process for all intents and purposes is OCZ’s problem to go manage. This does mean that ratings tend to be conservative and that under other conditions the resulting endurance would be higher.

Also related to reliability as well as endurance is sustained performance. What has OCZ done in the past years to ensure maximum read/write performance over time?

Daryl: Sustained performance and endurance actually go hand in hand. The efficiency of the ‘housekeeping’ process referred to above directly drives sustained performance. To keep it in simple terms less housekeeping leaves more time for performance.

Which methods is OCZ applying to test reliability as well as endurance regarding their SSDs?

Daryl: OCZ runs a variety of in house proprietary test suites align with a number of industry standard tests such as JEDEC JESD218, and JESD219.

In various forums there were adventurous stories on RMA cases regarding OCZ. What are the steps when a customer returns an allegedly damaged drive?

Tobias: Various data has been published in the past which does not reflect our true and internal RMA rates. You need to consider a number of factors when a third party comes out with data: They do not test the products and therefore are not indentifying products that were simply sent back during the cooling off period which consumers have a right to do.
In addition to that, percentage based RMA rates are only representative if you compare the returns to a certain volume. I know some of the numbers we have seen in the past were based on extremely low revenue / qty shipments which makes the data irrelevant and simply gives the wrong picture. Last but not least, we do extensive testing when we receive returns from customers and we find that a large percentage of products being returned are NTF (no trouble found).

All that being said, we continuously work on improving all aspects of our business. With our latest products, the Vertex 460 and Vector, we have seen the lowest RMA percentage of any products in our history which is down to a number of factors: for one, these products are based on our in-house controller, our own firmware and the highest grade NAND on the market – Toshiba 19nm. It is also a result of our ongoing effort to improve our processes when it comes to product development and testing procedures.

It would be interesting to hear what steps are going to happen, in case of warranty or RMA. Could OCZ make an example?

Tobias: Toshiba acquired the company’s assets and not the liabilities, but we are pleased that the new organization is able to continue to support existing customers with current SSD products. This supports the vast majority of consumers and all enterprise customers as our top volume products like the Vertex, Vector SATA and RevoDrive PCIe SSDs all continue to be supported. The Agility Series is already on the tail end of the lifecycle and we are able to provide one more year of support for this series. All OCZ Storage Solutions products launched after the acquisition, as well as any future products, will come with warranty support.

Which are the most exciting challenges ahead of OCZ short-term, mid-term as well as long-term?

Tobias: I talked about the four pillars (controller, firmware, NAND, software) earlier, having all those now our most exciting challenge short term is going to take advantage of being a fully integrated SSD provider as part of Toshiba and grow our market share in both the consumer and enterprise space.
Mid-term and long-term, we already have a number of exciting next generation products in the pipeline, the key will be to continue to innovate and launch market leading products and establish a key position in the market.

Maybe a little teaser at this point: will OCZ release a game changing drive in 2014?

Tobias: The launch of the Vertex 460 which uses Toshiba 19nm NAND, came just a few days after the acquisition had been announced. Our flagship consumer SSD, the Vector series, was already based on Toshiba NAND, now all our client drives utilize premium Toshiba NAND.
When it comes to our enterprise product offering, we recently launched the Intrepid 3000 series with Toshiba NAND and just recently we announced the new Z-Drive 4500 Series, utilizing Toshiba 19nm NAND, is OCZ’s Most Advanced, Robust and Affordable PCIe Edge Card to Date and Includes OCZ’s New WXL Software.

An exciting new product for enthusiasts and the workstation market is currently under development – the new RevoDrive which is going to utilize our own controller, 19nm Toshiba NAND resulting in incredible performance.

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