My “Size matters: Everything you need to know about SSD form factors” blog in January spawned some interesting questions, a number of them on Z-height.

What is a Z-height anyway?
For a solid state drive (SSD), Z-height describes its thickness and is generally its smallest dimension. Z-height is a redundant term, since Z is a variable representing the height of an SSD. The “Z” is one of the variables – X, Y and Z, synonymous with length, width and height – that describe the measurements of a 3-dimensional object. Ironically, no one says X-length or Y-width, but Z-height is widely used.

What’s the state of affairs with SSD Z-height?
The Z-height has typically been associated with the 2.5″ SSD form factor. As I covered in my January form factor blog, the initial dimensions of SSDs were modeled after hard disk drives (HDDs). The 2.5” HDD form factor featured various heights depending on the platter count – the more disks, the greater the capacity and the thicker the HDD. The first 2.5” full capacity HDDs had a maximum Z-height of 19mm, but quickly dropped to a 15mm maximum to enable full-capacity HDDs in thinner laptops. By the time SSDs hit high-volume market acceptance, the dimensional requirements for storage had shrunk even more, to a maximum height of 12.5mm in the 2.5” form factor. Today, the Z-height of most 2.5″ SSDs generally ranges from 5.0mm to 9.5mm.

With printed circuit board (PCB) form factor SSDs—those with no outer case—the Z-height is defined by the thickness of the board and its components, which can be 3mm or less. Some laptops have unique shape or height restrictions for the SSD space allocation. For example, the MacBook Air’s ultra-thin profile requires some of the thinnest SSDs produced.

A new standard in SSD thickness
The platter count of an HDD determines its Z-height. In contrast, an SSD’s Z-height is generally the same regardless of capacity. The proportion of SSD form factors deployed in systems is shifting from the traditional, encased SSDs to the new bare PCB SSDs. As SSDs drift away from the older form factors with different heights, consumers and OEM system designers will no longer need to consider Z-height because the thickness of most bare PCB SSDs will be standard.

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Solid state drive (SSD) makers have introduced many new layout form factors that are not possible with hard disk drives (HDDs). My blog Size matters: Everything you need to know about SSD form factors talks about the many current SSD form factors, but I gave the new M.2 form factor only a glimpse. The specification and its history merit a deeper look.

The history
A few years ago the PCI Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG), teaming with The Serial ATA International Organization (SATA-IO), started to develop a new form factor standard to replace Mini-PCIe and mSATA since specifications from both of these organizations are required to build SATA M.2 SSDs.  The new layout and connector would be used for applications including WiFi, WWAN, USB, PCIe and SATA, with SSD implementations using either PCIe or SATA interfaces. The groups set out to create a narrower connector that supports higher data rates, a lower profile and boards of varying lengths to accommodate various very small notebook computers.

This new form factor also aimed to support micro servers and similar high-density systems by enabling the deployment of dozens of M.2 boards. Unique notches in the edge connector known as “keys” would be used to differentiate the wide array of products using the M.2 connector and prevent the insertion of incompatible products into the wrong socket.

The name change
Initially the M.2 form factor was called Next Generation Form Factor, or NGFF for short. NGFF was designed to follow the dimensional specifications of M.2, a different specification from NGFF, which at that time was being defined by the PCI SIG. Soon after NGFF was announced, confusion between the identical form factors reigned, prompting the name change of NGFF to M.2. Many people in the industry have been slow to adopt the new M.2 name and you often see articles that describe these solutions as M.2, formally known as NGFF.

The keys
In the world of connectors or sockets, a “key” prevents the insertion of a connector into an incompatible socket to ensure the proper mating of connectors and sockets. The M.2 specification has defined 11 key configurations, seven for use sometime in the future. A socket can only have one key, but the plug-in cards can have keyways cut for multiple keys if they support those socket types. Of the four defined keys available for current use, two support SSDs. Key ID B (pins 12-19) gives PCIe SSDs up to two lanes of connectivity and key ID M (pins 59-66) provides PCIe SSDs with up to four lanes of connectivity. Both can accommodate SATA devices. All of the key patterns are uniquely configured so that the card cannot be flipped over and inserted incorrectly.

Unfortunately these keys alone do not tell the user enough about an SSD to help in the selection of replacement or upgrade drives. For example, a computer with an M.2 socket for PCIe x2 support features a B key so that no M.2 boards with PCIe x4 requirements (M key) can fit. However, even though a SATA M.2 card with a B key can fit in the same system, the host will not recognize SATA signals from the motherboard’s PCIe socket. With this signal incompatibility, users need to carefully read other socket specifications either printed on the motherboard or included in the system configuration information to see if the socket is PCIe or SATA.

The profile and lengths
Pin spacing on the M.2 card connector is higher in density than prior connector specifications, enabling a narrower board and thinner, lighter mobile computing systems that are smaller and weigh less. What’s more, the M.2 specification defines a module with components populating only one side of the board, leaving enough space between the main system board and the module for other components. The number of flash chips used by SSDs varies with storage capacity. The less the storage capacity requirement of an SSD, the shorter the module can be used, leaving system manufacturers more space for other components.

It’s all in the name
When I hear people call this specification by the name M.2 formally known as NGFF, I cannot help but think about the time when the rock artist Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and everyone was stuck calling him The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. In his case I believe he was going for the publicity of the confusion.

As for the renaming of NGFF to M.2, I really don’t think that was the goal. In fact I believe it was intended to simplify brand identity by eliminating a second name for the same specification. No matter what we call this new form factor, it appears destined to thrive in both the mobile computing and high-density server markets.

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The term ”form factor” is used in the computer industry to describe the shape and size of computer components, like drives, motherboards and power supplies. When hard disk drives (HDDs) initially made their way into microprocessor-based computers, they used magnetic platters up to 8 inches in diameter. Because that was the largest single component inside the HDD, it defined the minimum width of the HDD housing—the metal box around the guts of the drive.

The height was dictated by the number of platters stacked on the motor (about 14 for the largest configurations). Over time the standard size of the magnetic patter diameter shrank, which allowed the HDD width to decrease as well. The computer industry used the platter diameter dimensions to describe the HDD form factors, and those contours shrank over the years. Those 8” HDDs for datacenter storage and desktop PCs shed size to 5” to today’s 3.5”, and laptop HDDs, starting at 2.5”, are now as small as 1.8”.

What defines an SSD form factor?
When solid state drives (SSDs) first started replacing HDDs, they had to fit into computer chassis or laptop drive bays (mounting location) built for HDDs, so they had to conform to HDD dimensions. The two SSDs shown below are form factor identical twins—without the outer casing—to 1.8” and 2.5” HDDs. The SSDs also use standard SATA connectors, but note that the SATA connector for 1.8” devices is narrower than the 2.5” devices to accommodate the smaller width.

Internal circuit board of 1.8″ and 2.5″ SSD without the case

 

However, there’s no requirement for the SSD to match the shape of a typical HDD form factor. In fact some of the early SSDs slid into the high-speed PCIe slots inside the computer chassis, not into the drive bays.  A PCIe® SSD card solution resembles an add-in graphic card and installs the same way in the PCIe slot since the physical interface is PCIe.

SSD manufactured as a PCIe expansion card

 

The largest component of an SSD is a flash memory chip so, depending on how many flash chips are used, manufacturers have virtually limitless options in defining dimensions. JEDEC (Joint Electronic Device Engineering Council) defines technical standards for the electronic industry including SSD form factors. JEDEC defined the MO-297 standard, which establishes parameters for the layout, connector locations and dimensions of 54mm x 39mm Serial ATA (SATA) SSDs, so they can use the same connector as standard 2.5” HDDs, but fit into a much smaller space.

MO-297 with standard width (2.5”) SATA connector

 

The most important element of an SSD form factor is the interface connector, the conduit to the host computer. In the early days of SSDs, that connector was typically the same SATA connector used with HDDs. But over time the width of some SSDs became smaller than the SATA connector itself, driving the need for new connectors.

Standard SATA connector is too large for small form factors

Card edge connectors – the part of a computer board that plugs into a computer – emerged to enable smaller designs and to further reduce manufacturing and component costs by requiring the installation of only a single female socket on the host as a receptor for the edge of the SSD’s printed circuit board. (The original 2.5” and 1.8” SSD SATA connector required both a male and female plastic connector to mate the SSD to the computer).

With standardization of these connectors critical to ensuring interoperability among different manufacturers, a few organizations have defined standards for these new connectors. JEDEC defined the MO-300 (50.8mm x 29.85mm), which uses a mini-SATA (mSATA) connector, the same physical connector as mini PCI Express, although the two are not electrically compatible. SSD manufacturers have used that same mSATA edge connector and board width, but customized the length to accommodate more flash chips for higher capacity SSDs.

MO-300 mSATA (left) and custom-length mSATA (right)

 

In 2012 a new, even smaller form factor was introduced as Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF), but was later renamed to M.2. The M.2 standard defines a long list of optional board sizes, and the connector supports both SATA and PCIe electrical interfaces. The keyways or notches on the connector can help determine the interface and number of PCIe lanes possible to the board. However, that gets into more details than we have space to cover here, so we will save that for a future blog.

M.2 form factor supports PCIe and SATA, with many board size options

Apple® MacBook Air® and some MacBook Pro systems use an SSD with a connector and dimensions that closely resemble those of the M.2 form factor. In fact Apple MacBook systems have used a number of different connectors and interfaces for its SSD over the years. Apple used a custom connector with SATA signals from 2010 through 2012 and in 2013 switched to a custom connector with PCIe signals. 

 

MacBook Air SSDs with custom SATA and PCIe connectors

 

 

In some cases, standard SSD form factor configurations are not an option, so SSD manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to create custom board and interface configurations that meet those less typical needs.

Various custom SSD form factors and connectors

And finally there’s the ubiquitous USB-based connection. While USB flash drives have been around for nearly a decade, many people do not realize the performance of these devices can vary by 10 to 20 times. Typically a USB flash drive is used to make data portable—replacing the old floppy disk. In those cases the speed of the device is not critical since it is used infrequently.

Now with the high speed USB 3 interface, a SATA-to-USB 3 bridge chip, and a high performance flash controller like the LSI® SandForce® controller, these external devices can operate as a primary system SSDs, performing as fast as a standard SSD inside the system. The primary advantages of these SSDs are removability and transportability while providing high-speed operation.

USB host interface containing high-speed SSDs

If there’s one constant in life, it’s demand for ever smaller storage form factors that prompt changes in circuit layout, connector position and, of course, dimensions. New connectors proposed for future generations of storage devices like the SFF-8639 specification will enable multiple interfaces and data path channels on the same connector. While the SFF-8639 does not technically define the device to which it connects, the connector itself is rather large, so the form factor of the SSD will need to be big enough to hold the connector. That’s why the primary SFF-8639 market is datacenters that use back-plane connectors and racks of storage devices. A similar connector – like SFF-8639, very large and built to support multiple data paths – is the SATA Express connector. I will save the details of that connector for an upcoming blog.

The sky’s the limit for SSD shapes and sizes. Without a spinning platter inside a box, designers can let their imaginations run wild. Creative people in the industry will continue to find new applications for SSDs that were previously restricted by the internal components of HDDs. That creativity and flexibility will take on growing importance as we continue to press datacenters and consumer electronics to do more with less, reminding us that size does in fact matter.

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