The Anatomy of an SSD

Let’s meet Mr. N-channel MOSFET again:

Say Hello

This is the building block of NAND-flash; one transistor is required per cell. A single NAND-flash cell can either store one or two bits of data. If it stores one, then it’s called a Single Level Cell (SLC) flash and if it stores two then it’s a Multi Level Cell (MLC) flash. Both are physically made the same way; in fact there’s nothing that separates MLC from SLC flash, it’s just a matter of how the data is stored in and read from the cell.


SLC flash (left) vs. MLC flash (right)

Flash is read from and written to in a guess-and-test fashion. You apply a voltage to the cell and check to see how it responds. You keep increasing the voltage until you get a result.

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

 

With four voltage levels to check, MLC flash takes around 3x longer to write to as SLC. On the flip side you get twice the capacity at the same cost. Because of this distinction, and the fact that even MLC flash is more than fast enough for a SSD, you’ll only see MLC used for desktop SSDs while SLC is used for enterprise level server SSDs.


Cells are strung together in arrays as depicted in the image to the right

So a single cell stores either one or two bits of data, but where do we go from there? Groups of cells are organized into pages, the smallest structure that’s readable/writable in a SSD. Today 4KB pages are standard on SSDs.

Pages are grouped together into blocks; today it’s common to have 128 pages in a block (512KB in a block). A block is the smallest structure that can be erased in a NAND-flash device. So while you can read from and write to a page, you can only erase a block (128 pages at a time). This is where many of the SSD’s problems stem from, I’ll repeat this again later because it’s one of the most important parts of understanding SSDs.


Arrays of cells are grouped into a page, arrays of pages are grouped into blocks

Blocks are then grouped into planes, and you’ll find multiple planes on a single NAND-flash die.

The combining doesn’t stop there; you can usually find either one, two or four die per package. While you’ll see a single NAND-flash IC, there may actually be two or four die in that package. You can also stack multiple ICs on top of each other to minimize board real estate usage.

Hey, There’s an Elephant in the Room Strength in Numbers, What makes SSDs Fast
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  • sawyeriii - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Have you used a SSD? (If so which)

    I would state that it is not a luxary product, it is a premium product. The price difference you pay WILL translate to faster performance (if you choose correctly). More RAM only helps upto a point.

    Remember performance is based on a system of parts...
    CPU
    RAM
    NORTHBRIDGE
    GPU
    SOUTHBRIDGE
    I/O INTERFACE
    HDD/SDD

    Microsoft's Windows Experience Index has specific flaws, but the concept is sound... The system can only go a fast as the slowest component in the system (relative to the amount of time used by that component).
    Reply
  • Testtest - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    ... there's also Supertalent's Ultradrive ME (MLC) and LE (SLC) and Photofast's G-Monster v3

    At least the Supertalent drives are quite a bit cheaper with the same drive layout/controller than the Vertex drives and only differ in the firmware (which isn't bad either).

    It's however possible at least with the Ultradrive ME currently to provoke a kinda timeout error after they've been fully filled once and then still beeing written on. I don't own a Vertex so I can't test that there but if it was a controller issue, it should pop up there sooner or later as well (if you take a look in their suppport forum some error reports seem very similar).

    Intels have their 80% bug, Indilinx drives have their issues too it seems - let's hope that firmware can cure it!

    Great article btw!
    Reply
  • iwod - Thursday, March 19, 2009 - link

    Both SuperTalent and OCZ 30 / 32 GB drive cost exactly the same on NewEgg
    $129
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, March 19, 2009 - link

    If you get Newegg's specials, one of the codes is for the 30GB for $103 with a $20MIR, so $83 with shipping if the rebate comes through. At the size I would want (~120) the Super Talent undercuts the OCZ slightly.

    Does anyone know if you can install the firmware of one maker to another maker's SSD? For example, assuming both the Ultradrive ME and the Vertex use the same Indilinx controller, and say Super Talent chose to release it with the firmware which optimizes for higher sequential speeds, would the user be able to choose the firmware which optimizes for less latency?
    Reply
  • Testtest - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Ah, no editing?!

    A-Data's "300 plus" SSD also uses the Indilinx controller.
    Reply
  • vailr - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    "The Anatomy of a SSD" should instead read: "The Anatomy of an SSD" Reply
  • Flunk - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Yes, because S is a vowel... Reply
  • abudd - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Assuming SSD = "es-es-dee" then "an SSD" is right. If it *sounds* like a vowel, use "an". Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Yes, *but* SSD could also be read as "Solid State Drive" instead of "ess ess dee", in which case you would say "a SSD". I tend to read it as "ess ess dee", but Anand thinks of those letters as "Solid State Drive".

    Potato, potato, tomato, tomato... let's call the whole thing off!
    Reply
  • Azsen - Thursday, March 19, 2009 - link

    When reading acronyms you're supposed to think of them as the letters, i.e. when you see RAM, you think "ram" straight off not Random Access Memory. When you see "IBM" you think "eye bee emm" not International Business Machines etc etc. It would take ages to read an article if you had to stop and think out all the full wording of acronyms as you're reading them.

    I'm going with the correction of "Anatomy of an SSD". Correct English fullstop.
    Reply

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