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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  • Natfly - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Reply
  • DangerMouse4269 - Tuesday, April 13, 2010 - link

    Nicely written. Even a very out of practice Comp Eng understood that. Reply
  • geekforhire - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I have just replaced the hard drive in this 3 year old Dell Inspiron 9400 notebook computer with a new and very quick OCZ SSD, manually configured the partition with a 1024 offset, freshly installed the OS, freshly downloaded all of the latest and greatest drivers from Dell, and applied all currently available OS updates from Msft.

    The problem is that when the machine resumes from Standby, it will /reliably/ (4 out of 4 attempts) produce a BSOD 0xF4 after the power button is pressed to resume the machine from standby.

    Here's the sequence to recreate the problem:

    0) Machine is booted normally into Windows, and log in to an account which has administrative privs.
    1) Click on Start -> Shut Down -> Standby.
    2) See display turn black, disk I/O light flashes then stops, then the power indicator light begins to flash on and off slowly.
    3) Wait until the power light has made 2 slow flashes.
    4) Press the power button.
    5) See the Dell Bios splash screen, then disappear
    6) Boom: See the BSOD 0xF4

    The values reported after the STOP are:
    (0x00000003, 0x865b3020, 0x865b3194, 0x805d2954)

    Note that I've been in contact with OCZ before about this SSD+computer, because the previous BSOD that was produced was 0x77. Their recommendation was to create the partition with an offset with a 64 interval, and to reflash the SSD with their modern firmware. This was done, the OS was reinstalled as described, and now I'm getting a different BSOD code. Another mention was a question whether the notebook computer uses a SATA2 controller (definitely compatible) or SATA1 (which may have troubles).

    I've run Spinrite on the SSD, and there are lots of ECC errors being reported. I've been in contact with Spinrite, and they chalk this up to the SSD being chatty (which they like), but since SSD's are new and magnetic disks are common, they want to stay focussed on magnetic disks.

    When the machine boots back up, the OS reports that a serious error has occurred, and asks that a problem report be submitted, which I do. Then an attractive but somewhat generic page is displayed with common causes (Aging or failing hard disks, large file transfers from secondary media to local hd, loss of power to a hard drive, hard disk intensive processes (eg: antivirus scanners), recently installed hardware that might have compatibility and performance problems)

    Has anyone else encountered this kind of problem, and do you have any suggestions?
    Reply
  • angavar - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    As a medical student I can appreciate a well researched and analytical article when I see it. This is by far the best computer hardware review I have ever read! Thank-you for your time and effort in producing what is clearly a thoroughly researched and detailed analysis. Reply
  • mac021 - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    Thank you for the lesson and helping me understand SSD drives. May I just ask for your advice...

    For everyday use designing and generating prototypes for websites and running typical office s/w like word and excel for long documentations while listening to music or just having some video play in the background, then the occasional gaming of, say Star Craft 2 and Dead Space 3, and lets assume I do this on a 5 hours a day average for 365 days in a year, how long before I need to replace an OCZ Vertex/Summit SSD? And does format/reinstall help in prolonging the life of an SSD just as it does for my old hard drives (from a computer that's 6 years old and counting)? Or there's no stopping the SSD's death after reaching 10,000 times of being erased and rewritten on? I'm not one who keeps upgrading or buying new computer systems for every new thing that comes out, i'm more of a keeper and maintainer for as long as the system servers my needs... but when I make a purchase, I make sure it will be enough to last me another 6-12 years IF possible! Which is why I'm still considering SATA for my next purchase late this year or early next year (and I'm only buying a new PC just because I made a mistake buying a foxconn motherboard that can't support anything higher than XP, not even Vista... weird, anyway I found that out too late).

    Also, would you know of a motherboard that supports SSD, Windows 8, Nvidea, third gen i5/i7, and up to 64GB ram?

    Thanks so much!
    Reply

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