Putting Theory to Practice: Understanding the SSD Performance Degradation Problem

Let’s look at the problem in the real world. You, me and our best friend have decided to start making SSDs. We buy up some NAND-flash and build a controller. The table below summarizes our drive’s characteristics:

  Our Hypothetical SSD
Page Size 4KB
Block Size 5 Pages (20KB)
Drive Size 1 Block (20KB
Read Speed 2 KB/s
Write Speed 1 KB/s

 

Through impressive marketing and your incredibly good looks we sell a drive. Our customer first goes to save a 4KB text file to his brand new SSD. The request comes down to our controller, which finds that all pages are empty, and allocates the first page to this text file.


Our SSD. The yellow boxes are empty pages

The user then goes and saves an 8KB JPEG. The request, once again, comes down to our controller, and fills the next two pages with the image.


The picture is 8KB and thus occupies two pages, which are thankfully empty

The OS reports that 60% of our drive is now full, which it is. Three of the five open pages are occupied with data and the remaining two pages are empty.

Now let’s say that the user goes back and deletes that original text file. This request doesn’t ever reach our controller, as far as our controller is concerned we’ve got three valid and two empty pages.

For our final write, the user wants to save a 12KB JPEG, that requires three 4KB pages to store. The OS knows that the first LBA, the one allocated to the 4KB text file, can be overwritten; so it tells our controller to overwrite that LBA as well as store the last 8KB of the image in our last available LBAs.

Now we have a problem once these requests get to our SSD controller. We’ve got three pages worth of write requests incoming, but only two pages free. Remember that the OS knows we have 12KB free, but on the drive only 8KB is actually free, 4KB is in use by an invalid page. We need to erase that page in order to complete the write request.


Uhoh, problem. We don't have enough empty pages.

Remember back to Flash 101, even though we have to erase just one page we can’t; you can’t erase pages, only blocks. We have to erase all of our data just to get rid of the invalid page, then write it all back again.

To do so we first read the entire block back into memory somewhere; if we’ve got a good controller we’ll just read it into an on-die cache (steps 1 and 2 below), if not hopefully there’s some off-die memory we can use as a scratch pad. With the block read, we can modify it, remove the invalid page and replace it with good data (steps 3 and 4). But we’ve only done that in memory somewhere, now we need to write it to flash. Since we’ve got all of our data in memory, we can erase the entire block in flash and write the new block (step 5).

Now let’s think about what’s just happened. As far as the OS is concerned we needed to write 12KB of data and it got written. Our SSD controller knows what really transpired however. In order to write that 12KB of data we had to first read 12KB then write an entire block, or 20KB.

Our SSD is quite slow, it can only write at 1KB/s and read at 2KB/s. Writing 12KB should have taken 12 seconds but since we had to read 12KB and then write 20KB the whole operation now took 26 seconds.

To the end user it would look like our write speed dropped from 1KB/s to 0.46KB/s, since it took us 26 seconds to write 12KB.

Are things starting to make sense now? This is why the Intel X25-M and other SSDs get slower the more you use them, and it’s also why the write speeds drop the most while the read speeds stay about the same. When writing to an empty page the SSD can write very quickly, but when writing to a page that already has data in it there’s additional overhead that must be dealt with thus reducing the write speeds.

The Blind SSD Free Space to the Rescue
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  • gwolfman - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    lolz Reply
  • sidex - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    I would like to know the firmware version of Vertex used in your review. To me sounds the old 0112 Reply
  • kensiko - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Yes that is important to know.

    I'm sure this is not done with the latest firmware available which is 1199. This version got better performance.

    Firmware 1275 is coming also.

    Anand, will you update your benchmarks with the latest firmware?

    If not, then the benchmarks are obsolete.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    I tested with the shipping firmware for this article (0122). I've been playing around with 1199 in the lab and will most likely have an update in a couple of weeks once I've done a thorough evaluation of it. By then I should also have the final version of the new Samsung drive and maybe even some other interesting things.

    For now, I've got to get to work on the new Mac Pro and the updated Ion article :) I need a small break from SSDs por favor :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • VaultDweller - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Awww, don't you have some underlings to do your SSD-related will?

    Would love to see an update, and would love to see Corsair's SSD drive tested as well (it's based on Samsung's last generation MLC controller, and doesn't seem to emphasize sequential like the Summit does).
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    I will do an update on the new firmware, I just want to do it right so it'll take some time :)

    I'll put in a request for the Corsair drive as well :)

    -A
    Reply
  • Slash3 - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Page 29: "Not all applications will launch faster than a VelociRaptor on a SSD, but let's not forget that the VelociRaptor is the world's fastest hard drive."

    Really? What about the nice and speedy enterprise-level 15k SAS/SCSI drives everyone neglects to acknowledge? :)
    Reply
  • George Powell - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    I believe it refers to consumer drives. While SAS drives are beginning to be a possibility on the desktop with newer motherboards supporting them natively, the drives themselves are too expensive and too noisy for most consumers to actually want them.


    Reply
  • FishTankX - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Good info. However, I noticed one mistake.

    Second page
    Samsung had a MLC controller at the time but it was too expensive than what SuperTalent was shooting for.
    Reply
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