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
POST A COMMENT

236 Comments

View All Comments

  • 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
  • siliq - Wednesday, April 01, 2009 - link

    With Anand's excellent article, it's clear that the sequential read/write thoroughput doesn't matter so much - all SSDs, even the notorious JMicron series, can do a good job on that metric. What is relevant to our daily use is the random write rate. Latencies and IOs/second are the most important metric in the realm of SSD.

    Based on that, I would suggest Anand (and other Tech reporters) to include a real world test of evaluating the Random Write performance for SSD. Because current real-world tests: booting windows, loading games, rendering 3D, etc. they focus on the random read. However, measuring how long it takes to install Windows, Microsoft Visual Studio, or a 4-GB PC Game would thoroughly test the Random Write / Latency performance. I think this is a good complementary of our current testing methodology
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, March 31, 2009 - link

    Just wanted to add my thanks to Anand for this article in particular and for the quality work he has done over the years; I am so grateful for Anandtech's quality and information and the fact that it has been maintained! Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, March 31, 2009 - link

    Oops didn't proof, sorry about the misspell Anand! Reply
  • hongmingc - Saturday, March 28, 2009 - link

    Anand, This is a great Article and a good story too.
    The OCZ story caught my attention that a quick firmware upgrade make a big improvement. From my understanding that SSD system designers try to trade off Space, Speed, and Durability (Also SSD :)) due the nature of NAND flash.
    We can clearly see the trade off of Space and Speed when SSD is getting more full the slower the speed (This is due to out-of-place write to increase the write operation and a block reclaim routine). However, Speed is also sacrificed to achieve the Durability (by doing wear leveling). Remember SLC nand's life time is about 100K write, while MLC nand has only about 10K write. Without considering doing wear leveling to improve the life cycle of the SSD, the firmware can be much simple and easy which will improve the write operation speed quite a bit.
    I echo you that the performance test should reflect user's daily usage which can be small size files write and may not be 80% full.
    However, users may be more concern about the Durability, the life cycle of the SSD.
    Is there such a test? How long will the black box OCZ Vertex live?
    How long will the regular OCZ Vertex live? and How long will the X25 live?
    Reply
  • antcasq - Sunday, April 05, 2009 - link

    This article was excellent, explaining several issues regarding performance.

    It would be great if the next article abou ssd addresses durability and reliability.

    My main concert is the swap partition (Linux) or virtual memory file (Windows). I found an post in another website saying that this is not an issue. Is it true? I find it hard to believe. Maybe in a real world test/scenario the problem will arise.
    http://robert.penz.name/137/no-swap-partition-jour...">http://robert.penz.name/137/no-swap-partition-jour...

    I hope AnandTech can take my concerns into consideration.

    Best regards
    Reply
  • stilz - Friday, March 27, 2009 - link

    This is the first hardware review I've read from start to finish, and the time is well worth the information you've provided.

    Thank you for your honest, professional and knowledgeable work. Also kudos to OCZ, I'll definitely consider the Vertex while making purchases.
    Reply
  • Bytales - Friday, March 27, 2009 - link

    As i read the article, i'm thinking of ways to slow down the down the degrading process. Intel is gonna ship x-25m 320gb this year. If i buy this drive and use it as an OS drive, i will obviously won't need the whole 320GB. Say i would need only 40 to 50 GB. I can make a secure erase (if the drive isn't new), made a partition of 50GB, and leave the remaining space unpartitioned. Will that solve the problem in any way ?
    Another way to solve the problem, would be a method inside the OS. The OS could use a user controlled % of the RAM memory, as a cache for those small 4kb files. Since ram reads and writes are way faster, i think it will also help. Say you got 8GB ram, and use 2gb for this purpose, and then the OS would only have 6gb ram for its use, while 2gb is used for these smaller files. That would increase also the lifespan of the SSD. Can this be possible ?
    Reply
  • Hellfire26 - Thursday, March 26, 2009 - link

    In reference to SSD's, I have read a lot of articles and comments about improved firmware and operating system support. I hope manufacturers don't forget about the on-board RAID controller.

    From the articles and comments made by users around the web, who have tested SSD's in a Raid 0 configuration, I believe that two Intel X25-M SSD's in a RAID 0 configuration would more than saturate current on-board RAID controllers.

    Intel is doing a die shrink of the NAND memory that is going into their SSD's come this fall. I would expect these new Intel SSD's to show faster read and write times. Other manufacturers will also find ways to increase the speed of their SSD's.

    SSD's scale well in a RAID configuration. It would be a shame if the on-board RAID controller limited our throughput. The alternative would be very expensive add-in RAID cards.
    Reply
  • FlaTEr1C - Wednesday, March 25, 2009 - link

    Anand, once again you wrote an article that no one else could've written. This is why I'm reading this site since 2004 and will always do. Your articles and reviews are without exception unique and a must-read. Thank you for this thorough background, analysis and review of SSD.

    I was looking a long time for a solution to make my desktop experience faster and I think I'll order a 60GB Vertex. 200€(germany) is still a lot of money but it will be worth it.

    Once again, great work Anand!
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now