How SSDs Work

The building block of NAND flash is the N-channel MOSFET:

Each "cell" is made up of one of these transistors. In a single-level cell (SLC) flash device, one of these transistors can hold 1-bit of data. You write data to the cell by electron tunneling; apply a high enough voltage to the gate, create a powerful enough electric field, and electrons will tunnel through the oxide and into the floating gate. Remove the voltage and the electrons will remain in the floating gate. Apply the voltage across the channel instead of the gate, reverse the bias and the electrons will go in the other direction. Simply put, that's how flash works - you've got two states, 0 and 1, and the state is preserved even if the cell has no power, making it ideal for a storage device.

Programming flash is an iterative process. The controller will apply voltage to the gate (or the channel), allow some electrons to tunnel and check the threshold voltage of the cell. When the threshold voltage has reached some predetermined value, it’s now programmed and your data is stored.

MLC vs. SLC

There are two forms of NAND flash used in SSDs today: Single-Level Cell (SLC) and Multi-Level Cell (MLC). The difference between the two is the amount of data stored per cell, with SLC it's 1-bit per cell and with MLC it's 2-bits per cell. The key here is that both SLC and MLC take up the same amount of die area, so MLC effectively doubles your capacity at the same price.

Intel actually uses the same transistors for its SLC and MLC flash, the difference is how you read/write the two. With SLC there are only two voltages to worry about, since there are two states (0 or 1). With MLC, there are four states (00, 01, 10, 11) and thus it takes longer to access since you don't want to accidentally write the wrong bit of data; you've got the same min and max voltage, you simply have more graduations in between the two now:


SLC (left) vs. MLC (right)

Below is a table of some basic stats on SLC vs. MLC performance:

  SLC NAND flash MLC NAND flash
Random Read 25 µs 50 µs
Erase 2ms per block 2ms per block
Programming 250 µs 900 µs

 

Erasing performance is the same between the two, read performance takes twice as long on MLC flash and write performance can take almost four times as long. If you've ever heard people complain about MLC write speed before, this partly why. Do keep in mind though, the numbers we're talking about here are ridiculously low - even 900 µs to write to MLC flash is much faster than writing to a mechanical hard disk.

The biggest advantage of SLC ends up not being performance, but lifespan. To understand how flash wears, we first need to look at how it's organized in a storage device.

Index The Flash Hierarchy & Data Loss
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  • Alleniv - Wednesday, August 19, 2009 - link

    Hi all,
    I report this new review about X25-M, that takes in consideration a comparative with other SSDs and also with HDDs, with several benchmarks ? http://www.informaticaeasy.net/le-mi...m-da-80gb.h...">http://www.informaticaeasy.net/le-mi...m-da-80gb.h...
    Reply
  • Bytales - Saturday, January 03, 2009 - link

    You said this: For example, let's say you download a 2MB file to your band new, never been used SSD, which gets saved to blocks 10, 11, 12 and 13. You realize you downloaded the wrong file and delete it, then go off to download the right file. Rather than write the new file to blocks 10, 11, 12 and 13, the flash controller will write to blocks 14, 15, 16 and 17. In fact, those four blocks won't get used again until every other block on the drive has been written to once

    By this i understand that a bigger capacity SSD, for instance 320 vs 160 will have more blocks and hence you will need more writes to deplete the number a write cycles the SSD was designed for. So for SSD bigger means even longer lasting. IS this TRUE ?
    Reply
  • lpaster - Wednesday, November 26, 2008 - link

    Can you overclock this SSD? Reply
  • Sendou - Wednesday, February 09, 2011 - link

    There are optimization methods available for SSD's which can mitigate performance loss through genuine usage over time.

    One such is Diskeeper's HyperFast Technology.

    There is a white paper regarding HyperFast available at:

    http://downloads.diskeeper.com/pdf/Optimizing-Soli...
    Reply
  • BludBaut - Thursday, March 31, 2011 - link

    I read the pdf article you linked from Diskeeper.

    Based on the information Anand has given in his articles about Intel's technology, Diskeeper's "whitepaper" sounds like crap advertising by a company who's afraid their technology might be considered not only useless but detrimental to use with SSDs. I'm inclined to agree since Diskeeper's own results show a 4x write loss by just *one* "optimization" while Anand's article clearly suggests that the proper design (which he says Intel has accomplished) eliminates the need for Diskeeper's service.

    Until I find more thorough examination of the facts, Diskeeper's remarks make me distrust them.

    On the other hand, Anand's article definitely sounds not just like a puff piece for Intel, but qualifies in my mind as advertising. Wonder how much money Intel has spent on Anandtech? That's not to suggest that anything is misrepresentative (well, it wasn't meant to sound that way, but keep reading and you'll find the one-sided praise will later be partially retracted and I don't know the end of the story yet), but we all know that advertising always leaves out the negatives.

    (Reviews shouldn't sound like advertisements but anyone who's been reading magazine reviews for 30 years knows that's frequently the case. The reviewer's bills get paid by the manufacturers' of the products he's reviewing. But, the reviewer is objective of course. It's a matter of journalistic integrity. Yeah, I believe that. Don't you?)

    One such negative was the promotion of the life of the drive. "20GB a day for five years"? Anand praises Intel for multiplying that by five to "100GB a day for five years" but then tells us that they'll only guarantee the drive for three years and has the audacity to suggest we'll likely have a recourse "if we can prove" ... -- how is anyone going to prove how many GBs a day they put on their computer? The annoyance of trying to keep track is not something 99% of people would do.

    Did you do the math to see how long it takes to write 100GB to a drive with a write speed of 200MB/s? Eight minutes and twenty seconds is all it takes.

    Well, that's great if all you use your computer for is reading articles, checking the news and sales prices and sending email. The drive should last as long as your computer. But if you love video (who loves video???), it's a different story entirely.

    There's another negative that, though first denied, eventually was acknowledged. More than six months later, Anand reports back and says essentially, 'Intel is still the best but the performance does degrade with time and I don't know why.' If he's explained it since then, I've yet to read it.

    So, for those just reading the article, don't get so encouraged that you start drooling. The article has a tendency to make one think, "What am I waiting for? I want one of these puppies!" Unfortunately, Intel's technology isn't as rosy and bulletproof and Anand made it sound.
    Reply
  • kevonly - Friday, November 21, 2008 - link

    I hope you do some benchmark on Samsung's new 256GB SSD. Hopefully it's as good as Intel's. Reply
  • kevonly - Friday, November 21, 2008 - link

    its read/write speed is 200/160 mb/s. Will it sustain that speed in a multi applications running environment?? Reply
  • kevonly - Friday, November 21, 2008 - link

    sorry

    read/write speed is 220/200 mb/s.
    Reply
  • scotopicvision - Monday, November 10, 2008 - link

    The article was an amazing read, fantastic, and well done thank you. Reply
  • D111 - Saturday, October 25, 2008 - link


    Legacy OS like Windows Vista, XP, and Applications like Microsoft Office 2003, 2007, etc. have built in, inherent flaws with regard to SSDs.

    Specifically, optimizations of these OS for mechanical hard drives like superfetch, prefetch, etc. tend to slow down, rather than help performance and is unnecessary to speed up reads in an SSD, but slow it down with unnecessary writes of small files, which SSDs are slower than a regular hard drive.

    Things like automatic drive defragmentation with Vista does nothing for SSDs except to slow them down.

    Properly optimized, even low cost 2007 generation SSDs test out as equivalent to a 7200 rpm consumer grade drive, and typical SSDs made in 2008 or later tend to outperform mechanical hard drives.

    The tests done here have done nothing to "tweak" the OS to remove design hindrances to SSD performance, and thus, have no validity or technical merit.

    The test, as presented, would be similar to installing a 19th century steam engine on a sailing ship, and observing that it is rather slow ---- without mentioning the drag and performance hits caused by the unused sail rigging, masts, etc.

    See the discussion here for a detailed discussion of SSD performance tweaks and what it takes to make them perform well with legacy OS and Applications.

    http://www.ocztechnologyforum.com/forum/forumdispl...">http://www.ocztechnologyforum.com/forum...display....

    Reply

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