Apple Joins the Flash Madness Club With Anobit Deal
Apple appears to have closed its deal for the Israeli flash-memory concern Anobit.
Apple isn’t commenting and is officially treating all this as rumor and speculation (it rarely comments on acquisitions, anyway). But the deal is being reported in Israeli newspapers, and the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted a welcome message to Apple today, which sure feels like confirmation. So I’ll proceed under the assumption that the reports of this acquisition are true.
That makes this a cause for celebration. With the Anobit buy, Apple is now the latest member of the Flash Madness Club, which I created over the summer, in the wake of the Fusion-io IPO and other activities by notable flash-technology companies like Violin Memory, Pure Storage and Qwilt.
So why is Apple willing to throw down a reported half-billion dollars on this company? It’s because flash memory has a fundamental problem: As it ages, its ability to store data wears off. This problem is sometimes compared to the semiconductor equivalent of Alzheimer’s. Individual cells on the flash-memory chip lose their ability to store the individual ones and zeros that make up the pictures and music and other data they may be storing, especially after millions of read-and-write operations — the act of putting data on the chip and then loading it from the chip for use. After a lot of heavy use — this can vary depending on the chip — the chips begin to suffer problems with “endurance.”
As flash starts to show up in data centers and PCs and other places beyond consumer gear like iPhones and iPads, this becomes a more important problem. If your iPad gets old enough to suffer data-endurance problems, it’s a pretty simple matter to replace it. But in the more rigorous world of an enterprise data center, where millions of reads and writes will be done on a chip daily, data endurance is a potentially very expensive problem. In the enterprise, a solid-state drive is considered suitable only if it can stand up to five full-drive write cycles, where the drive is filled to capacity and then erased every day for five years.
Anobit’s solution to these problems involves techniques known as memory-signal processing and the use of some secret-sauce memory-processing error-correction algorithms, plus some management tricks for moving data around a flash chip in more efficient ways, in order to make them last longer.
It’s also the sort of problem that a company like Apple — which is the world’s largest consumer of flash memory, and has been for several years — would want to solve. Think of the many places where Apple uses flash — the iPad, iPhone, iPod, MacBook Air and Apple TV. And those are just the products we know about, so far. Flash can’t help but appear in many more products.
On top of that, flash technology plays a significant role in Apple’s data centers. Fusion-io, the company that builds flash-based insert cards that speed up garden-variety servers, has named Apple as a significant customer, so there’s plenty of flash inside Apple’s facilities in North Carolina. Flash endurance can’t help but be a problem Apple might face with its iCloud service, for example.
Israel has a big connection to the flash industry. SanDisk’s founder, Eli Harari, is Israeli; a few years back SanDisk acquired an Israeli company called Msystems, which, if my memory serves, was the first to popularize what we now call a thumb or keychain drive. So, historically, there have been a lot of useful innovations on flash memory that have come out of that country. Supposedly, the deal calls for Apple to open a research center there, so it will get the benefit of ongoing innovations on flash. Chances are it’s going to need a few.