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SSD Vendor OCZ Files For Bankruptcy

After a very rocky year, one-time high flying SSD maker OCZ announced last week that it's declaring bankruptcy. Flash foundry owner Toshiba has agreed to buy OCZ’s assets out of bankruptcy and provide debtor-in-possession financing to allow OCZ to continue operations through the proceedings.

The proximate cause of the bankruptcy was OCZ’s lender Hercules Technology Growth Capital, Inc. ceasing whatever little cash was in OCZ’s bank accounts. The full story, of course, is more complicated and more interesting. The short version is that OCZ had been losing more than $100 million a year for the past couple of years and had just $70 million in total assets left.

Rumors about an OCZ takeover of some sort have floated around for well over a year. Last September, there were reports that Seagate was inches from buying the SSD vendor until OCZ founder and former CEO Ryan Petersen demanded a seat on the Seagate board as part of the price. Ryan left the company soon thereafter amid revenue shortfalls he blamed on NAND flash shortages.

As if a failed merger and founder/CEO jumping ship weren't bad enough, the bean counters at OCZ discovered problems with their SEC filings shortly after Ryan’s departure and replacement with Ralph Schmitt. OCZ had to restate earnings, and like every other company that’s been in this position, earnings were restated downward. It failed to file for a year, finally catching up in October of this year.

A lack of financial transparency led the banks to pull OCZ’s credit lines, and the company was forced into the expensive financing arrangement with Hercules that ultimately resulted in the hammer coming down.

One big problem was that the financial shenanigans caused the flash foundries to pull back on their sales of flash wafers to OCZ, which did its own packaging though it didn’t have a foundry of its own. Without flash to build into SSDs OCZ couldn’t sell its way out of the crisis.

The other problem is that OCZ, despite developing its own controller technology after buying Indilinx in 2011, has had a reputation for poor quality control. Take a quick glance at the comments on any article related to OCZ at enthusiast sites like Anandtech, Tom's Hardware or Ars Technica and you'll see many complaints about failed SSDs.

Clearly, OCZ’s collapse is another step in the inevitable shakeout of the SSD business. Not only were too many assemblers competing with too products that had no real differentiation, but there is a real NAND flash shortage building. All of that boosts the advantage of the flash foundry vendors (Intel/Micron, Samsung, Toshiba/SanDisk and SK Hynix). Players such as Micron and Samsung have already shown that they’d rather sell higher margin SSDs directly to consumers and OEMs than raw flash wafers to folks like OCZ.

[As the SSD market consolidates, what companies will survive? Read Howard Marks' analysis in "SSD Vendors: Who Will Win?"]

While Toshiba makes some SSDs -- unlike SK Hynix, which is to date still is only a component provider and has its own problems recovering from a DRAM factory fire in China -- it's a minor player in the market. An OCZ/Toshiba branding could leverage OCZ’s brand recognition while also playing off the Japanese reputation for quality, moving Toshiba into a leading position in the SSD market.

It might even open enterprise doors that have been closed to OCZ’s caching products because users were turned off by OCZ's reputation and avoided them. All in all, the deal is probably worth the $35 million Toshiba is offering.

The big question now is how will stand-alone SSD vendors from Mushkin to Fusion-io deal with an onslaught from the vertically integrated vendors that have their own flash foundries and Western Digital’s Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) division, which is currently digesting both STEC and Virident? Only time will tell.