Seagate joins the flash party with Pulsar

December 8, 2009: 1:40 AM ET

Seagate's Pulsar drive uses single-level cell NAND flash, and is the first of what analysts expect will be many solid-state products from the storage giant. Image: Seagate.

Flash memory – the stuff that stores data in consumer gadgets like phones and digital cameras – is also finding its way into more corporate data centers. It turns out that while flash is still far more expensive than trusty old hard drives, it uses less power and serves up information quickly. That makes it well suited for tasks like data mining, business information and any other situation where time is money.

That's why Seagate (STX), the world's largest manufacturer of hard drives, is getting into the flash game. Seagate today is expected to unveil Pulsar, a new flash-based storage product that looks like a hard drive and holds up to 200 gigabytes of data. The drive is designed for a mainstream server – the kind that handles e-mail and basic databases – and is the first of many flash-based products Seagate hopes to release soon.

Seagate has one big advantage as it breaks into the enterprise flash market: it's already the big dog in data center hard drives, selling to the likes of Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and EMC (EMC). Because Seagate's sales folks know how businesses buy storage, they'll be able to quickly muscle their way to the front of the flash supplier line.

But there are also challenges. For one, smaller companies like Fusion-io have been selling enterprise flash drives for quite a while – and from what I've heard, some of them arguably have edgier technology based on the SAS and PCI interfaces. After my chat with Seagate sales exec Dave Mosely, I asked Gartner storage analyst Joe Unsworth for his take on Pulsar.

"The Seagate drive is a decent start considering that they are indeed late to the game," Unsworth wrote in an email. "However, the product itself does not differentiate itself compared to what is out there – after all, it is really only targeted at the server market and is based on the SATA interface."

There's also the question of where Seagate's going to get the flash for its drives, and for how much. In its hard drive business, Seagate rules the supply chain. In flash, not so much. Top flash manufacturers Samsung and Toshiba sell most of their stash to companies like Apple (AAPL), which gobble it up for gadgets like iPods and iPhones.

Seagate at least won't be buying the same kind of multi-level cell flash that's in most consumer devices; instead it will use the lower capacity but higher-endurance single-level cell variety. Still, though, flash prices can swing wildly, and by getting into this market Seagate will be increasing its exposure to that volatility. That's not much of a concern for now, but over time the company will have to ink deals that guarantee its flash supply at manageable prices.

So bottom line: It's good to see Seagate out there with its own enterprise flash storage, and it's sure to do fine out of the gate. But to have the kind of success here that it's had with hard drives, Seagate will have to get busy innovating – and maybe also acquiring smaller outfits that specialize in flash.

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