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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  • Abjuk - Wednesday, September 02, 2009 - link

    Agreed CM, my current project at work takes about six minutes to build from scratch and CPU usage never gets above about 35%. The process is totally IO bound.

    It really depends on whether you have several large source files or several hundred small ones.
    Reply
  • Weyzer - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Good article and testing, but why was the Crucial M225 not mentioned at all? It's performance is similar to the vertex drives, I know, but I think it could have been mentioned somewhere, if it is in the good or bad range. Reply
  • jasperjones - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    javascript:link('frmText') $997 @ Newegg omgomgomg

    Needless to say, that price will come down quickly. So more seriously, after reading the article I really feel I understand better what to look for in an SSD. Thanks!
    Reply
  • paesan - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Wow, does NE really think that anyone will buy the Intel drive at that price. OMG!!! Funny thing, it is in stock and it says limit 1 per customer. Lol Reply
  • CList - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Obviously someone is buying them at that price or they'd lower it. The people who can't wait two or three weeks and are willing to be gouged for these drives are the ones that allow NewEgg to give us low margins on other products while not going out of business :D

    Reply
  • ravaneli - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    I just decided to buy one and when I opened newegg i couldn't believe my eyes. I hope that is only because they have a few drives left, and once Intel pumps up some stock in the retailers the prices will go back to Intel's retail.

    Does anyone know what are the production capabilities of Intel's SSD factories? I don't want to wait a whole year until the market saturates.
    Reply
  • LazierSaid - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    This article was so good that Newegg doubled their X25M G2 prices overnight.

    Reply
  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Yep, very impressive advertisement indeed. Reply
  • HVAC - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    I'd rather have ewoks in the sequels than Jar-jar ... Reply
  • Naccah - Tuesday, September 01, 2009 - link

    Newegg's prices on all the Intel SSDs skyrocketed. The X-25 G2s are $499 now. Is this price a reflection of the high demand or did Intel change the price again? Reply

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