Strength in Numbers, What makes SSDs Fast

Given the way a single NAND-flash IC is organized one thing should come to mind: parallelism.

Fundamentally the flash that’s used in SSDs cut from the same cloth as the flash that’s used in USB drives. And if you’ve ever used a USB flash drive you know that those things aren’t all that fast. Peak performance to a single NAND-flash IC is going to be somewhere in the 5 - 40MB/s range. You get the faster transfer rates by reading/writing in parallel to multiple die in the same package.

The real performance comes from accessing multiple NAND ICs concurrently. If each device can give you 20MB/s of bandwidth and you’ve got 10 devices you can access at the same time, that’s 200MB/s of bandwidth. While hard drives like reads/writes to be at the same place on the drive, SSDs don’t mind; some are even architected to prefer that data be spread out all over the drive so it can hit as many flash devices as possible in tandem. Most drives these days have 4 - 10 channel controllers.

The Recap

I told you I’d mention this again because it’s hugely important, so here it is:

A single NAND flash die is subdivided into blocks. The typical case these days is that each block is 512KB in size. Each block is further subdivided into pages, with the typical page size these days being 4KB.

Now you can read and write to individual pages, so long as they are empty. However once a page has been written, it can’t be overwritten, it must be erased first before you can write to it again. And therein lies the problem, the smallest structure you can erase in a NAND flash device today is a block. Once more, you can read/write 4KB at a time, but you can only erase 512KB at a time.

It gets worse. Every time you erase a block, you reduce the lifespan of the flash. Standard MLC NAND flash can only be erased 10,000 times before it goes bad and stops storing data.

Based on what I’ve just told you there are two things you don’t want to do when writing to flash: 1) you don’t want to overwrite data, and 2) you don’t want to erase data. If flash were used as a replacement for DVD-Rs then we wouldn’t have a problem, but it’s being used as a replacement for conventional HDDs. Who thought that would be a good idea?

It turns out that the benefits are more than worth the inconvenience of dealing with these pesky rules; so we work around them.

Most people don’t fill up their drives, so SSD controller makers get around the problem by writing to every page on the drive before ever erasing a single block.

If you go about using all available pages to write to and never erasing anything from the drive, you’ll eventually run out of available pages. I’m sure there’s a fossil fuel analogy somewhere in there. While your drive won’t technically be full (you may have been diligently deleting files along the way and only using a fraction of your drive’s capacity), eventually every single block on your drive will be full of both valid and invalid pages.

In other words, even if you’re using only 60% of your drive, chances are that 100% of your drive will get written to simply by day to day creation/deletion of files.

The Anatomy of an SSD The Blind SSD
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  • Hrel - Thursday, April 09, 2009 - link

    Instead of making me dinner can you send me that test system instead??? Please!!! Reply
  • Hrel - Thursday, April 09, 2009 - link

    I was wondering what controller the OCZ solid Series is based on??? Will I experience hiccups with that drive or not? Is the point of my question. Reply
  • sfisher64 - Wednesday, April 08, 2009 - link

    I just purchased a Dell Latitude E6400 with a 64GB Ultra Performance Solid State Drive. Does anyone know what type of drive this is, and where it fits in the spectrum described in this article? Reply
  • Baffo - Saturday, April 11, 2009 - link

    The Dells use the Samsung drives (you should see this on the bottom if you pull it out). However, as much as I wish this was one of the newer controllers (I have a few of these at work as well), the testing cycles demanded by Dell probably mean these are the older controllers. Reply
  • marraco - Tuesday, April 07, 2009 - link

    This article is popular :) Reply
  • BLHealthy4life - Monday, April 06, 2009 - link

    Intel 9.1.1.1010 (Intel) Where are these drivers? I can only find version 1007 and not 1010....

    Thanks
    Reply
  • BLHealthy4life - Sunday, April 12, 2009 - link

    found it....

    Intel obviously keeps the X58 chipset drivers current for their own boards, just not other mfgs boards....

    They installed fine on my R2E..

    BL
    Reply
  • irondukes - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    Hi-- Do SLCs suffer from performance degradation, or are the controllers pretty agressive at erasing the data since they have far longer read-write cycles? Please help! Deciding between an X25E and X25M Reply
  • mdavies - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    I'm reading this about a day late - got my Patriot PE256GS25SSDR 2.5" 256GB yesterday since I'm bad about destroying hard drives. this drive, in a word, was excruciating. I'll be replacing it with one of your recommended drives today.

    Thanks
    Reply
  • sotoa - Friday, April 03, 2009 - link

    Long time reader, first time post.
    I really liked the background story and appreciate how Anand delves deep into the the SSD's (as well as other products in other articles).

    Thanks for looking out for the little guy!
    Keep up the great work!
    Reply

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