Analyst: Seagate after Intel's share of flash memory firm

Speculation Seagate wants to purchase Intel's interest in the IM Flash Technologies venture

Seagate Technology may be pursuing a buyout of Intel's 49 percent stake in its joint NAND flash memory venture with Micron Technology, according to an analyst report issued Thursday.

In the report, Lazard Capital Markets analyst Daniel Amir speculated that Seagate is a prime suitor to purchase Intel's interest in the IM Flash Technologies venture to help fuel its plans to satisfy growing demand for solid-state drives alongside its existing physical disk drive business.

Amir could not be reached for comment. Spokespersons from Intel, Seagate and Micron all declined comment on the Lazard Capital Markets report.

IM Flash Technologies has kept busy this year announcing the fruits of several NAND flash projects. Last month, the companies unveiled a 34-nanometer, 32-gigabit NAND flash memory chip. In February, the partners debuted a high-speed NAND, 8GB single-level cell memory technology they said can transfer data at speeds up to five times faster than conventional NAND technology.

Avi Cohen, head of research at brokerage firm Avian Securities, said Intel is likely growing dissatisfied with its two-year-old investment in IM Flash Technologies due to a depressed NAND flash memory market that has seen massive product oversupply and high prices. He noted that Intel, STMicroelectronics and investment firm Francisco Partners LP formed a joint venture called Numonyx BV to take over Intel's NOR flash memory business.

"Is it completely out of the realm of possibility [for Intel to abandon NAND flash] like they've exited NOR and several other business units? The answer is no," remarked Cohen.

Currently, the leading suppliers of NAND flash include IM Flash Technologies, Samsung, Hynix Semiconductor Inc., and a joint venture between Toshiba and SanDisk.

Seagate's interest in acquiring a NAND flash manufacturer makes sense, noted Cohen, due to the company's bet that solid-state technology will be adopted first by corporate users that can afford the technology. Analysts have predicted that demand for solid-state over physical spinning disks in data centers will increase as early as later this year as IT managers look to improve transaction processing and Web services response times.

"Companies are willing to pay higher prices for solid-state drives and Seagate could tailor the drives to [data centers] where it makes the most sense to use them," added Cohen.

If Seagate did purchase Intel's share of its NAND flash memory business, Cohen noted that it may end up owing royalties on multi-level cell technology usage to SanDisk. Intel currently holds a cross-licensing agreement with SanDisk to use its MLC, but the deal could evaporate if Intel sells its stake in IM Flash Technologies, he said.