For the past six months I've been working on research and testing for the next major AnandTech SSD article. I figured I had enough time to line up its release with the first samples of the next-generation of high end SSDs. After all, it seems like everyone was taking longer than expected to bring out their next-generation controllers. I should've known better.

At CES this year we had functional next-generation SSDs based on Marvell and SandForce controllers. The latter was actually performing pretty close to expectations from final hardware. Although I was told that drives wouldn't be shipping until mid-Q2, it was clear that preview hardware was imminent. It was the timing that I couldn't predict.

A week ago, two days before I hopped on a flight to Barcelona for MWC, a package arrived at my door. OCZ had sent me a preproduction version of their first SF-2500 based SSD: the Vertex 3 Pro. The sample was so early that it didn't even have a housing, all I got was a PCB and a note:

Two days isn't a lot of time to test an SSD. It's enough to get a good idea of overall performance, but not enough to find bugs and truly investigate behavior. Thankfully the final release of the drive is still at least 1 - 2 months away, so this article can serve as a preview.

The Architecture

I've covered how NAND Flash works numerous times in the past, but I'll boil it all down to a few essentials.

NAND Flash is non-volatile memory, you can write to it and it'll store a charge even if you remove power from the device. Erase the NAND too many times and it will stop being able to hold a charge. There are two types of NAND that we deal with: single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level cell (MLC). Both are physically the same, you just store more data in the latter which drives costs, performance and reliability down. Two-bit MLC is what's currently used in consumer SSDs, the 3-bit stuff you've seen announced is only suitable for USB sticks, SD cards and other similar media.

Writes to NAND happen at the page level (4KB or 8KB depending on the type of NAND), however you can't erase a single page. You can only erase groups of pages at a time in a structure called a block (usually 128 or 256 pages). Each cell in NAND can only be erased a finite number of times so you want to avoid erasing as much as possible. The way you get around this is by keeping data in NAND as long as possible until you absolutely have to erase it to make room for new data. SSD controllers have to balance the need to optimize performance with the need to write evenly to all NAND pages. Conventional controllers do this by keeping very large tables that track all data being written to the drive and optimizes writes for performance and reliability. The controller will group small random writes together and attempt to turn them into large sequential writes that are easier to burst across all of the NAND devices. Smart controllers will even attempt to reorganize data while writing in order to keep performance high for future writes. All of this requires the controller to keep track of lots of data, which in turn requires the use of large caches and DRAMs to make accessing that data quick. All of this work is done to ensure that the controller only writes data it absolutely needs to write.

SandForce's approach has the same end goal, but takes a very different path to get there. Rather than trying to figure out what to do with the influx of data, SandForce's approach simply writes less data to the NAND. Using realtime compression and data deduplication techniques, SandForce's controllers attempt to reduce the size of what the host is writing to the drive. The host still thinks all of its data is being written to the drive, but once the writes hit the controller, the controller attempts to reduce the data as much as possible.

The compression/deduplication is done in realtime and what results is potentially awesome performance. Writing less data is certainly faster than writing everything. Similar technologies are employed by enterprise SAN solutions, but SandForce's algorithms are easily applicable to the consumer world. With the exception of large, highly compressed multimedia files (think videos, MP3s) most of what you write to your HDD/SSD is pretty easily compressible.

You don't get any extra space with SandForce's approach, the drive still has to accommodate the same number of LBAs as it advertises to the OS. After all, you could write purely random data to the drive, in which case it'd behave like a normal SSD without any of its superpowers.

Since the drive isn't storing your data bit for bit but rather storing hashes, it's easier for SandForce to do things like encrypt all of the writes to the NAND (which it does by default). By writing less, SandForce also avoids having to use a large external DRAM - its designs don't have any DRAM cache. SandForce also claims to be able to use its write-less approach in order to use less reliable NAND, in order to ensure reliability the controller actually writes some amount of redundant data. Data is written across multiple NAND die in parallel along with additional parity data. The parity data occupies the space of a single NAND die. As a result, SandForce drives set aside more spare area than conventional controllers.

What's New

Everything I've described up to this point applies to both the previous generation (SF-1200/1500) and the new generation (SF-2200/2500) of SandForce controllers. Now let's go over what's new:

1) Toggle Mode & ONFI 2 NAND support. Higher bandwidth NAND interfaces mean we should see much better performance without any architectural changes.

2) To accommodate the higher bandwidth NAND SandForce increased the size of on-chip memories and buffers as well as doubled the number of NAND die that can be active at one time. Finally there's native 6Gbps support to remove any interface bottlenecks. Both 1 & 2 will manifest as much higher read/write speed.

3) Better encryption. This is more of an enterprise feature but the SF-2000 controllers support AES-256 encryption across the drive (and double encryption to support different encryption keys for separate address ranges on the drive).

4) Better ECC. NAND densities and defect rates are going up, program/erase cycles are going down. The SF-2000 as a result has an improved ECC engine.

All of the other features that were present in the SF-1200/1500 are present in the SF-2000 series.

The Unmentionables: NAND Mortality Rate
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  • FCss - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    "My personal desktop sees about 7GB of writes per day." maybe a stupid question but how do you check the amount of your daily writes?
    And one more question: if you have a 128Gb SSD and you leave let's say 40Gb unformated so the user can't fill up the disk, will the controller use this space the same way as it would belong to the spare area?
    Reply
  • Quindor - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    I use a program called "HDDLED" for this. It shows you some easily accessible leds on your screen and if you hover over it, you can see the current and total disk usage since your PC was booted up. Reply
  • FCss - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    thanks, a great software Reply
  • Breit - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    isn't the totally written bytes to the drive since manufacturing be part of the smart data you can read from your drive? all you have to do then is noting down the value when you boot up your pc in the morning and subtract that from the actual value you read there the next day. Reply
  • Chloiber - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Or you can just take the average.. Reply
  • marraco - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Vertex 2 takes advantage of unformated space. So OCZ advices to leave 20% of space unformated , (although to improve garbage collection, but it means that unformated space is used) Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Comon Anand! In your example you have 185GB free on a 256GB drive. I think that is the least likely scenario that paints an overly optimistic case in terms of write life. Everyone knows not to completely fill up their drive but are you telling me that the vast majority of users are going to have 78% of their drive free at all times? I just don't buy it.

    The more common scenario is that a consumer purchases a drive slightly larger then needed (due to how expensive these luxuries still are). So that 256GB drive probably will only have 20-40GB free. Do that and that 36 days for a single use of the NAND becomes ~5-8 days (no way to move static data around at this capacity level). Factor in write amplification (0.6X to 10X) and you lower the time to between 4-25 years for hitting that 3000X cap.

    Still not a HUGE problem, but much more relevant then saying this drive will last for hundreds of years (not counting NAND lifespan itself).
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Bah I thought the write amplification was 1.6X. That changes the numbers considerably (enough that the point is moot). I still think the example in the article was not a normal circumstance but it seems to still not be an issue.

    <pie to face>
    Reply
  • mark53916 - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Encrypted files are not compressible, so you won't get any advantage
    from the hardware write compression.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Hi Anand,

    Looks like one of the numbers is incorrect in this chart. Right now it shows LOWER performance after TRIM then when the drive was completely full. The 230MB/sec value seems to be incorrect.
    Reply

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