Monday, April 14, 2008

Seagate Fires First Volley Against SSD maker

Hard drive maker Seagate a lawsuit against solid state drive manufacturer STEC in the Northern District of California claiming STEC infringed four of Seagate’s patents related to how a SSD interfaces with computers. This is the first time a HDD manufacturer has sued a SSD maker.

It’s hard to see the financial motivation behind such a move. STEC’s enterprise SSD revenues were only $11 million in 2007, although it could reach 4-10x more this year depending on the ramp of the ZeusIOPS and Mach8 MLC product lines. With a market share of over 50% in enterprise HDDs, Seagate clearly sees a longer-term threat from the leading maker of enterprise SSDs.

However, a bigger motivation would be to send a signal to flash memory makers about the value of its intellectual property. It’s no secret that Seagate has been courting NAND flash vendors to secure NAND flash for a SSD it’s planning for the end of the year. A rumored JV with Micron fell apart last year and it is apparently in discussions with two of the three largest vendors. One of the main stumbling blocks is what Seagate could bring to any cooperation as all NAND flash vendors have ambitions to develop and market SSDs. This litigation could be a validation of the IP which Seagate can offer. Western Digital, which along with Seagate, was an early investor in SanDisk (then SunDisk) apparently holds some critical controller and wear leveling IP and could be next to enforce its IP.

SanDisk is taking no chances. In Q2/07, it set up Solid State Storage Solutions LLC with unknown partners that will license IP, presumably SSD-related IP. In July 2007, Solid State Storage Solutions LLC invested $42.5 million for the acquisition of intellectual property. It has apparently purchased relevant SSD and controller IP from Renesas Technology. This IP could prove effective in extracting royalties from flash memory card manufacturers and controller makers entering the SSD space, but it is questionable whether it is enough to counter any future claims by Seagate and WD.

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