PCIe Flash Storage Consolidates: Seagate Buys Avago Tech, Violin Sells To SK Hynix

Two acquisitions in the PCIe flash storage industry in the past week highlight the consolidation the business is experiencing as flash storage shifts away from the component level toward SSDs and all-flash arrays.

Violin Memory on Thursday said it entered into a definitive agreement to sell its PCIe flash storage line to Korea-based semiconductor company SK Hynix for roughly $23 million plus the assumption of about $500,000 worth of liabilities.

The acquisition, which comes on the heels of Violin Memory's February decision to sell its PCIe flash business, lets the company focus on development of its all-flash storage arrays.

[Related: Violin Memory Teams With Microsoft To Embed Windows Storage Server 2012 In All-Flash Array]

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Seagate also on Thursday said it signed a definitive agreement to acquire the PCIe flash storage and the SSD controller business of Singapore-based Avago Technologies for some $450 million.

This follows Avago's December move to acquire LSI in a deal worth about $6.6 billion.

The two acquisition agreements follow hard drive and SSD vendor Western Digital's late-2013 acquisition of flash storage developer Virident for about $685 million, giving it access to PCIe flash storage technology.

Connecting flash storage via the PCIe bus is a great way to increase storage performance compared to SSDs, which require RAID controllers, said Todd Swank, director of product marketing at Equus Computer Systems, a Minneapolis-based system builder.

However, Swank said, while PCIe storage is still a niche product, it's one that is maturing.

"SATA and SAS are currently the mainstream way for connecting SSDs and flash storage," Swank told CRN. "And for the highest performance, there's the new ULLtraDIMM technology from SanDisk , which is the creme de la creme."

Keith Norbie, director of server, virtualization and storage for the Eastern U.S. for Technology Integration Group (TIG), a San Diego-based solution provider, told CRN that PCIe was what really defined the flash storage market in the beginning, but that it has been going through a gradual decline.

"As SSDs get faster, the performance gap with PCIe falls," Norbie said. "And the pluggable form factor of SSDs is often more important than the extra performance of PCIe."

Even as the PCIe flash storage market consolidates, the server business is changing how flash storage is used, Norbie said.

For instance, he cited new memory architectures that boost performance, as well as EMC's acquisition of DSSD, which despite the lack of details seems to be developing PCIe bus expansion technology that provides PCIe-like features with larger capacity than current PCIe technology allows.

NEXT: PCIe Flash Storage Technology Evolves Towards Commodity

"The reason to use PCIe is to get higher performance than with SSDs," Norbie said. "There's no need for RAID controllers. The problem is, unless you are working with HPC [high-performance computing] or with workloads which need high performance vs. capacity, you probably won't go PCIe."

Even though the PCIe market is falling, it is still a healthy market, Norbie said. "It could still swing back," he said. "For example, maybe someday SSD drives will be pluggable to the PCIe bus. That would require renventing the PCIe bus."

Eric Herzog, chief marketing officerand senior vice president of business development at Violin Memory, said his company decided to sell its PCIe storage business to SK Hynix in large part because it is not a core business to his company.

The sale also provides a way to handle that business without disrupting employees, and brings Violin Memory a cash infusion, Herzog told CRN.

For Violin Memory, all-flash storage arrays are a much larger opportunity, Herzog said.

"It's a larger market, and more diverse," he said. "And it's an easier market in which to compete. We've got strong technology, strong solutions and a strong market base. The sale is a way for us to focus."

At any rate, the PCIe flash storage market is shifting quickly towardtechnology that will likely be commonly found as a component on server motherboards, Herzog said.

"Look at the Ethernet business," he said. "The bulk of the technology today is on the motherboard. The largest vendor today is Intel."

Seagate was unable to provide any details about its acquisition of the Avago technology other than to confirm that the company previously did not have PCIe flash storage technology.