Corsair's Scott Thirlwell on the state of DRAM and SSDs in India and globally
Corsair is a popular name when it comes to DRAM modules and SSDs. We had a free-wheeling conversation with Scott Thirlwell, Director of Sales APAC – Corsair Memory where we discussed the current state of the SSD market, the testing procedure of DRAM modules, among other things. Read on.
1) Majority of the Indian consumers are quite clueless when it comes to DRAM and generally go by what the counter guy is suggesting. How do you plan to educate the Indian consumers about Memory?
A) Our main aim is to educate our channel partners and retailers about DRAM. We want to make them aware of our offerings and which type of memory is targetted at which segment. We have carried out roadshows where we involve retailers and train them about the various types of Corsair DRAM modules and whom they are meant for. Ultimately they are the ones who influence consumers on what memory to purchase, if the consumers are not well informed. So we make sure that we highlight strong aspects of our offering to the retailers.
For consumers, we are not directly training them. But we have experts who are present on various technology forums, who are there to answer your queries.
2) How hard was Corsair affected due to the Thailand floods and the dip in PC shipments?
A) On the contrary, we were doing pretty well in the aftermath of the Thailand floods. We did not have as bad a time as the hard drive makers.
3) What type of Corsair memory sells most in India?
A) We have two broad segments of DRAM, addressing the value segment and the enthusiast segment. In India, the value segment is the one that outsells the XMS series or enthusiast models. In the cities, the demand for enthusiast series memory kits is higher than value based ones. Our Vengeance line for instance has been doing quite well. But in Tier-3/4/5 segments, we are just concentrating on the value segment as establishing a market for the enthusiast level DRAM modules will just take more time. Our main aim is to reach out to as many retailers and end users as possible.
4) How do you perceive your SSD market in India?
A) Frankly speaking India being a price conscious market, we still are not seeing numbers which we are seeing in say Europe or China, but they are slowly picking up. With SSDs we manage to sell anywhere between 700 to 900 units/month which is in line with our expectations. In the last 9 months prices have fallen considerably and in the next couple of months, we are expecting SSD prices to fall even further, which will see a boost in that sales number.
5) Why do you think that the SSD prices will drop?
A) Well the NAND chip manufacturing technology is improving. So now we will be able to pack in more NAND chips per wafer than what we were doing before. Due to this the volumes will increase and this will lead to a definite reduction in prices.
6) What kind of testing process does a DRAM module go through?
A) It is quite fascinating actually to see how the memory chips are selected. DRAMS are produced on a wafer. The wafer has to be graded for 1333 MHz and has to be graded based on the farthest chip. This grading may vary as we approach the centre of the wafer, which may be capable of higher speeds. The chip maker will not cut off individual chips from the wafer and grade them, entire wafers have to be graded. So the chip maker can claim stuff like 'the worst performing chip on this wafer is 1333 MHz'. You can’t take the chips at the centre, run them through tests and say that if they are capable of going to 2400 MHz, then the entire wafer will have all the chips going to those speeds. In some other wafer the chips in the centre may only be capable of going upto 1600 MHz. These speeds may vary from wafer to wafer. So we at Corsair, have to check each individual chip.
So after the chips have been cut out from the wafer, we pass them through the functionality test.
Each chip is carefully sorted and then passed through the tests. We have world class equipment that runs stress tests on these memory chips. So for instance if we have to include a chip in a 2133MHz RAM module, then that chip has to undergo stress tests for every speed rating starting from 1333MHz onwards.
When you observe a RAM stick, you will notice a number of memory chips on it, so while testing the RAM, we have a stick that has existing chips rated for the timing for which the chip has to be tested. In it you place the chip you want to test. If it succeeds that test, then it is tested for a higher timing. And so on. So if a chip does not clear the test for the 2133MHz module, it is used in the module which has slightly slower speeds, leaving apart some headroom for slight bit of overclocking as well.
So this way, each chip goes through at least 6-7 rounds of testing before we decide which module it should go in. So for 24 hours a day, we have trained personnel sorting chips and testing them.
7) Do SSDs go through a similar procedure?
A) No, SSDs are comparitively easier to make as they do not have to undergo individual speed testing. Where SSDs are concerned, you just have to select the appropriate controller and NAND memory. So it is more of an assembling related thing as compared to DRAM modules.
But much before any of the production testing starts, we have our RnD labs are based in the US, where products are designed and product prototypes undergo rigorous testing to ensure that they are working. Then it goes to Taiwan for production and testing. So for instance the latest SSD that we launched called the Neutron, was in the development for close to 4-5 months. It will have a new controller from Link-A-Media (which was bought over by Hynix) which is exclusive to Corsair, so making sure that it works well is a lot of work.
8) How do you decide on which controller to choose for the SSD?
A) Testing. What we do is we take into consideration all the SSD controllers out there and our RnD team will test out each controller with the NAND memory that we have. Based on the results we decide upon which ones to use and which ones to discard.
9) I noticed while doing the SSD comparison test last year, that all the SSDs had the same SandForce controller. How then, do you differentiate your SSDs from other manufacturers?
A) Well i agree that the past generation of SSDs had a majority of them using a SandForce controller. The problem is that right now SandForce is one of the big SSD controllers and most of the companies seem to be using it and its hard to differentiate. The way you can do that is by using better quality memory.
So the dilemma is should we make it better or should we make it cheaper?
Depending on the pricing and the category of SSD, we decide whether to use synchronous or asynchronous memory. It is a fine balance between memory and cost.
A lot of the new players are trying to compete at cost and some of them are doing this by using NAND memory chips which are meant to be used in USB sticks. That is dangerous. These kind of memory chips are not made to handle the workload of an SSD and there is a big question mark on their life-cycle. So yeah, these guys may make SSDs at very low prices, but if you use cheap quality NAND memory with a good controller, it will not be long before that SSD turns useless, as that memory is USB grade. Since the last 3-4 months a lot of SSD companies have been selling SSDs using these low-grade NAND chips, so when these SSDs will one day stop working, there is going to be a massive wave as a lot of people have bought these SSDs.
But there is good news thanks to a lot of consolidation is happening in this space - controller and NAND memory. SandForce has so far enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the controller market. But I think other controller companies just needed some time. In the next 3 to 4 months, you will definitely hear about more SSD controller companies that will challenge the reign of SandForce.
For instance, we have recently started using Link-A-Media controllers (a company bought over by Hynix) in our SSDs. We have worked in collusion with Link-A-Media to provide the best experience and performance with our next generation of SSDs. Also due to this partnership, we will be able to sell Force GT class SSDs at Force Series prices. It is also the controller that is being used on Seagate’s hybrid drives.
So deciding on an SSD controller solely depends on which controller gives us the best performance with the type of memory we use. Our R&D labs in the US keep testing out various controllers in the market every few months, to keep at the top of our game.
10) So do you see more SSD makers tying up with controller manufacturers to have exclusive partnerships?
A) No, rather SSD makers will be buying them. All major memory and drive manufacturers such as Western Digital, Seagate, Hynix, SanDisk have bought SSD controller companies in the recent past.
11) Do you forsee this consolidation in the SSD market, ultimately going the hard drive industry way, where you have just two or three major players?
A) No, i dont think so. The reason is that it is a lot easier to make an SSD than a hard drive. Right now, apart from the main HDD players, no one can make HDDs. The costs are just phenomenal. As for SSDs, you just have to buy the controller and the NAND memory, put it together, test it and you are good to go. But it is not so easy to do well. OCZ acquiring Indilinx controller is a case in point.
12) Do you forsee SSD sales to increase at an exponential rate now with the SSD prices coming down slowly?
A) Yeah definitely. Well, the cost per GB of SSDs is coming down for sure, but i doubt it will reach the same levels as that of the HDDs, as SSDs just cannot match up with the kind of capacities that are offered by HDDs at that price point.
There are many arguments. Some people say that SSDs will take over the world and the HDDs market will take a beating. With the rise of ultrabooks, SSDs seem to be gaining traction. Then there are others who say that SSDs sales will rise up and will capture say 15 per cent of the overall storage market over the next 5 years, but the rest will still be dominated by HDDs. Others say that hybrid drives will see a boost in sales as they have the storage capacity and cost advantage of HDDs and the speed of SSDs. Still there are others who say that cloud storage will become so popular that no one will invest in a hard drive. With players like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple investing in personal cloud storage, that is another challenger in the storage space. The possibilities are quite endless, and each school of thought has some strong arguments in their favour. So we will have to wait and watch.
13) What other industries are SSDs used apart from home use?
A) A lot of our SSDs are used in Data centres for two reasons - they are power efficient and they do not heat a lot. This brings down the cooling costs as HDDs tend to generate tremendous amount of heat and that factors in costs for cooling.
14) What is Corsair's break-up of memory and other components worldwide and in India?
A) On a worldwide basis we are 60 per cent memory and 40 percent everything else. That is a big shift for us, as we were a 100 per cent memory company. In Asia as a whole, we are very close to that number. In India though it is an altogether different ratio, around 85-15 in favour of memory, as we are solely concentrating on establishing a strong DRAM market. On our newer product lines we always start at the highest end and then go down lower. Our goal in India is to drive that ratio of DRAM and components to 60:40. October this year will see a launch of many products including mice, keyboard, cabinets, PSU among others.