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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  • sotoa - Friday, September 04, 2009 - link

    Another great article. You making me drool over these SSD's!
    I can't wait till Win7 comes to my door so I can finally get an SSD for my laptop.
    Hopefully prices will drop some more by then and Trim firmware will be available.
    Reply
  • lordmetroid - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    I use them both because they are damn good and explanatory suffixes. It is 2009, soon 2010 I think we can at least get the suffixes correct, if someone doesn't know what they mean, wikipedia has answers. Reply
  • AnnonymousCoward - Saturday, September 05, 2009 - link

    As someone who's particular about using SI and being correct, I think it's better to stick to GB for the sake of simplicity and consistency. The tiny inaccuracy is almost always irrelevant, and as long as all storage products advertise in GB, it wouldn't make sense to speak in terms of GiB. Reply
  • Touche - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    Both articles emphasize Intel's performance lead, but, looking at real world tests, the difference between it and Vertex is really small. Not hardly enough to justify the price difference. I feel like the articles are giving an impression that Intel is in a league of its own when in fact it's only marginally faster. Reply
  • smjohns - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    This is where I struggle. It is all very well quoting lots of stats about all these drives but what I really want to know is if I went for Intel over the OCZ Vertex (non-turbo) where would I really notice the difference in performance on a laptop?

    Would it be slower start up / shut down?
    Slower application response times?
    Speed at opening large zipped files?
    Copying / processing large video files?

    If the difference is that slim then I guess it is down to just a personal preference....
    Reply
  • morrie - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    I've made it a habit of securely deleting files by using "shred" like this: shred -fuvz, and accepting the default number of passes, 25. Looks like this security practice is now out, as the "wear" on the drive would be at least 25x faster, bringing the stated life cycles closer to having an impact on drive longevity. So what's the alternative solution for securely deleting a file? Got to "delete" and forget about security? Or "shred" with a lower number of passes, say 7 or 10, and be sure to purchase a non-Intel drive with the ten year warranty and hope that the company is still in business, and in the hard drive business, should you need warranty service in the outer years... Reply
  • Rasterman - Wednesday, September 16, 2009 - link

    watching too much CSI, there is an article somewhere i read by a data repair tech who works in one of the multi-million dollar data recovery labs, basically he said writing over it once is all you should do and even that is overkill 99% of the time. theoretically it is possible to even recover that _sometimes_, but the expense required is so high that unless you are committing a billion dollar fraud or are the secretary to osama bin laden no one will ever try to recover such data. chances are if you are in such circles you can afford a new drive 25x more often. and if you have such information or knowledge wouldn't be far easier and cheaper to simply beat it out of you than trying to recover a deleted drive? Reply
  • iamezza - Friday, September 04, 2009 - link

    1 pass should be sufficient for most purposes. Unless you happen to be working on some _extremely_ sensitive/important data. Reply
  • derkurt - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    quote:

    So what's the alternative solution for securely deleting a file?


    I may be wrong on this, but I'd assume that once TRIM is enabled, a file is securely deleted if it has been deleted on the filesystem level. However, it might depend on the firmware when exactly the drive is going to actually delete the flash blocks which are marked as deletable by TRIM. For performance reasons the drive should do that as soon as possible after a TRIM command, but also preferably at a time when there is not much "action" going on - after all, the whole point of TRIM is to change the time of block erasing flash cells to a point where the drive is idle.
    Reply
  • morrie - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    That's on a Linux system btw

    As to aligning drives...how about an update to the article on what needs to be done/ensured, if anything, for using the drives with a Linux OS?
    Reply

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