A Quick Flash Refresher

DRAM is very fast. Writes happen in nanoseconds as do CPU clock cycles, those two get along very well. The problem with DRAM is that it's volatile storage; if the charge stored in each DRAM cell isn't refreshed, it's lost. Pull the plug and whatever you stored in DRAM will eventually disappear (and unlike most other changes, eventually happens in fractions of a second).

Magnetic storage, on the other hand, is not very fast. It's faster than writing trillions of numbers down on paper, but compared to DRAM it plain sucks. For starters, magnetic disk storage is mechanical - things have to physically move to read and write. Now it's impressive how fast these things can move and how accurate and relatively reliable they are given their complexity, but to a CPU, they are slow.

The fastest consumer hard drives take 7 milliseconds to read data off of a platter. The fastest consumer CPUs can do something with that data in one hundred thousandth that time.

The only reason we put up with mechanical storage (HDDs) is because they are cheap, store tons of data and are non-volatile: the data is still there even when you turn em off.

NAND flash gives us the best of both worlds. They are effectively non-volatile (flash cells can lose their charge but after about a decade) and relatively fast (data accesses take microseconds, not milliseconds). Through electron tunneling a charge is inserted into an N-channel MOSFET. Once the charge is in there, it's there for good - no refreshing necessary.


N-Channel MOSFET. One per bit in a NAND flash chip.

One MOSFET is good for one bit. Group billions of these MOSFETs together, in silicon, and you've got a multi-gigabyte NAND flash chip.

The MOSFETs are organized into lines, and the lines into groups called pages. These days a page is usually 4KB in size. NAND flash can't be written to one bit at a time, it's written at the page level - so 4KB at a time. Once you write the data though, it's there for good. Erasing is a bit more complicated.

To coax the charge out of the MOSFETs requires a bit more effort and the way NAND flash works is that you can't discharge a single MOSFET, you have to erase in larger groups called blocks. NAND blocks are commonly 128 pages, that means if you want to re-write a page in flash you have to first erase it and all 127 adjacent pages first. And allow me to repeat myself: if you want to overwrite 4KB of data from a full block, you need to erase and re-write 512KB of data.

To make matters worse, every time you write to a flash page you reduce its lifespan. The JEDEC spec for MLC (multi-level cell) flash is 10,000 writes before the flash can start to fail.

Dealing with all of these issues requires that controllers get very crafty with how they manage writes. A good controller must split writes up among as many flash channels as possible, while avoiding writing to the same pages over and over again. It must also deal with the fact that some data is going to get frequently updated while others will remain stagnant for days, weeks, months or even years. It has to detect all of this and organize the drive in real time without knowing anything about how it is you're using your computer.

It's a tough job.

But not impossible.

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  • paulgj - Saturday, October 09, 2010 - link

    Well I was curious about the flash in my Agility 60GB so I opened it up and noted a different Intel part number - mine consisted of 8 x 29F64G08CAMDB chips whereas the pic above shows the 29F64G08FAMCI. I wonder what the difference is?

    -Paul
    Reply
  • Bonesdad - Sunday, October 10, 2010 - link

    Been over a year since this article was published...still very relevant. Any plans to update it with the latest products/drivers/firmware? There have been some significant updates, and it would be good to at least have updated comparisons.

    Well done, more more more!
    Reply
  • hescominsoon - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Excellent article but you left out sandforce. I'm curious if this was an oversight or a purposeful moission. Reply
  • PHT - Friday, September 28, 2012 - link

    This article is fantastic, the best I ever read about SSD.
    Any follow up with new SATA III drives and new controllers like SandForce, new Indilinx etc.?
    I will be glad to see it.

    My Best
    Zygmunt
    Reply
  • lucasgonz - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Hello everyone.
    This post is quite old but I hope someone can answer.
    I am concerned about the life of my ssd (sandisk extreme 240). I performed partitions ignoring the issue of the level of wear and partitions. I have it for one year ago with a 30gb partition and one with 200GB. I wanted to use large drive for data but I did not have time for that and just use the first 30gb partition . My question is if the ssd may be damaged by using only a little segment. DiskInfo shows 10tb reading 18 tb and writing.
    sorry my poor English.
    Thanks for any help.
    Reply
  • Ojaswin Singh - Monday, January 13, 2014 - link

    Hey,This is the most informative article i have ever read.Can You Please clear Out Some Of my Doubts:-
    1.Does Playing Video Games or Running Programs add to Writing on the SSD
    2.Is 1 Write Cycle=Filling 120GB of SSD once
    3.I really write on my HDD a lot(Seriusly a Lot) So how much life cycle can i expect from Samsung 840 SSD(Neither Pro nor EVO) I mean for how much time can i expect it to be writable
    Please Help me cause i want the speeds of SSD but i want it to last for me too
    Thanks,
    Ojaswin
    Reply

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