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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  • jtleon - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    Yes I fell asleep atleast 3 times reading this article (it IS Monday afterall)

    Yes, Indilinx clearly rocks the SSD world - Now I know thanks to Anand!

    Stories like this set the standard for all review sites - I don't come away with the feeling I was just sold a bill of goods by some schiester in Intel's pocket, or otherwise.

    Great Job Anand! Keep them coming!
    Reply
  • SSDdaydreamer - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    I too am wondering whether TRIM will be available on the Intel Drives for Windows XP or Vista. I seriously doubt it, as the OCZ Wiper Tool appears to only be available for Indilinx controllers. Perhaps Intel will introduce their own wiper utility. I am leaning towards the OCZ Vertex or Patriot Torqx drives, as I am quite content with Windows XP and Windows Vista.
    I have an itchy trigger finger on these SSDs, but I want to hold back for the following unknowns.

    1. I would like to use the NTFS file system for my drive, but I am unsure of the proper/ideal block size.

    2. I would merely like to image my existing Windows Installation, but I am worried that performance or stability problems will arise from the NTFS file system. A fresh install could be in order, but it is preferred to image.

    3. Is there a way to change the size of the spare area? Maybe I have the wrong idea (perhaps only format part of the drive, unformatted space goes appends to the spare area?) I am willing to sacrifice some of the usable partition space for an increased spare area for improved performance.

    4. Are there complications with multiple partitions? If there are multiple partitions on the drive (for multi-boot) do they all share the same spare area? Is it possible to allow their own respective spare areas?


    Is there anybody out there that could enlighten me? I'm sure others would do well to have the answers as well. If I make any discoveries, I will be sure to post them.
    Thanks in advance.
    Reply
  • bradhs - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    IS there a "Wiper" app for Intel X-25m G2 drives? For people who don't have Windows 7 (TRIM) and want to keep the Intel X-25m G2 running smooth. Reply
  • smjohns - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    No there is no wiper tool for Intel drives at the mo. In addition to this the current firmware on the Intel drives do not have TRIM enabled. I guess this will be released soon after Windows7 is released. I think I have read somewhere that Intel are working on a TRIM version of it's Matrix Storage Manager software that will provide this functionality to the other operating systems. Reply
  • Burny - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    As many before me: great article! I learned a lot about SSD's. Even up to the point i'm ready to buy one.
    I still have 2 questions tough:

    2. Will TRIM be available on the G2 Intel drives for sure? Some sources doubt this: http://www.microsoft.com/communities/newsgroups/en...">http://www.microsoft.com/communities/ne...t=&l...


    3. As I understand, TRIM will work on a firmware level. That implies that TRIM will also function under Windows XP or any OS for that matter? Then why the need to build another TRIM into Windows 7? Or does a TRIM firmware enabled SSD simply allows the OS to use TRIM?

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • smegforbrain - Monday, September 07, 2009 - link

    While I consider myself handy with computers, I'm not the best technical mind when it comes to the details. You do an excellent job of presenting everything in a manner that it can be understood with little difficulty. I look forward to future articles about SSDs.

    I do have a question I'm hoping somebody can answer. I'm as interested in the long-term storage outlook of SSD drives as I am every day use. I've seen it said that an SSD drive should hold its charge for 10 years if not used, and it was discussed a bit earlier in this thread.

    Yet, none of my current mechanical hard drives are more than 3 years old; none of my burned DVDs/CDs are older than 5 years. It seems far more likely that I would replace an SSD for one with a greater storage capacity after 5 years tops than to expect one to be in use, even as archival storage, for as long as 10 years.

    So, is the 10 year 'lifespan' even going to be an issue with archival storage for most people?

    Will this worry over the life span of an SSD become even less of an issue as the technology matures over the next couple of years?
    Reply
  • Starcub - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    "So, is the 10 year 'lifespan' even going to be an issue with archival storage for most people?"

    No, but who takes wads of money out of their wallet to store it on their shelf?
    Reply
  • smegforbrain - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    "No, but who takes wads of money out of their wallet to store it on their shelf?"

    That is simply assuming that they will remain as expensive as they are now. They won't.
    Reply
  • BlackSphinx - Sunday, September 06, 2009 - link

    Hello! I'm taking the time to comment on this article, because I am very thankful for all of these awesome write-ups on SSD.

    I'm in the process of building an heavily overclocked i7 rig for gaming and video edition, and I was going to jam 2 Velociraptors in Raid0 in there. Why? I had only heard bad things about SSDs in the past.

    Reading your aticles, who are, while in depth, very clear and easy to understand, I understand much better what happened in early SSDs, what's so good about recent Indilinx and Intel SSD, and, truly, why I should forgo mechanical drives and instead go the SSD route (which, frankly, isn't more costly than a Raid0 raptor setup). In short, these articles are a great service to the end users just like myself, and if they were intended as such, you have passed with flying colors. Congratulations and thanks.
    Reply
  • Transisto - Sunday, September 06, 2009 - link

    Could someone reset my brain as to why there is no way to get a (very noticeable) improvement from USB thumb-drives. I mean these thing also get 0.1 ms latency.

    It's a bit extreme but for the same price I could get 9 cheap 8gb SLC usb drive for around 20$ each and put them in three separate PCI-USB add-on card (5$)

    They would saturate the USB controler with 3 drive in it so I Could get around 140mb/s read and 60mb/s write.

    Say you manage to merge that into a raid or ... ? Is eboost or Readyboost any good at scaling up ?

    Reply

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