Together we can build a better SSD controller – CNEX bags $23m funding

CNEX Labs, a startup that enables big cloud computing vendors to customise SSDs, has picked up $23m in Series D funding.

Typically, SSD controllers are one size fits all – apart from relatively crude differentiation into enterprise and consumer SSDs. And typically they are supplied by SSD manufacturers such as Micron, Western Digital and Samsung.

Using CNEX controller technology, hyperscale vendors can build their own controllers and squeeze substantially better price/performance, according to CNEX. The company claims customers gain higher drive throughput, lower power consumption, lower and predictable latency and better cost control.

Or as CNEX Labs CEO Alan Armstrong puts it: “CNEX Labs technology relieves customers from the mercy of a commoditised market and puts them back in control of their own destinies.”

So how does it work?

We first came across CNEX in March 2018, in connection with Microsoft’s Project Denali. The idea is to make solid state drives dumber by executing upper-level controller software functions, such as wear-levelling and garbage collection, in a host server or in an ASIC/FPGA/SoC device front-ending the drives.

That’s where CNEX comes in, at the ASIC/FPGA/SoC level. The pitch is cheaper drives and operations performed more efficiently at systems level instead of drive level.

The company offers its own controllers and turnkey SSD design assistance. Its technology includes a programmable interface to NAND flash memory, allowing the same controller to work with multiple types of NAND.

It has flexible drive- or host-based Flash Translation Layer (FTL) control supporting optimisation for different workloads. Proprietary hardware acceleration supports key functions that typically run today on slower firmware.

Talking about money

CNEX began life in 2013 with $2.5m seed funding. It picked up a $21.2m A-round in 2014, $25m B-round in 2015 and $17m C-round last year. Today, total funding is around $88m. The latest infusion is led by early investor Dell Technologies Capital, which also led CNEX’s A-round.

D round funders are a roll-call of the great, the good and the filthy rich. They include M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, which led CNEX’s Series C round, major semiconductor foundries, and large storage and networking semiconductor companies. VC backers included Sierra Ventures, Walden Venture Investments, and Brightstone Venture Capital.

Let’s hope we see a product next year and customer validation. If this technology idea flies, we think CNEX Labs is likely to be acquired by an SSD vendor. Micron, for example, already offers a  degree of SSD customisation and looks to be a good fit with CNEX Labs’ technology.

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