The Performance Degradation Problem

When Intel first released the X25-M, Allyn Malventano discovered a nasty corner case where the drive would no longer be able to run at its full potential. You basically had to hammer on the drive with tons of random writes for at least 20 minutes, but eventually the drive would be stuck at a point of no return. Performance would remain low until you secure erased the drive.

Although it shouldn't appear in real world use, the worry was that over time a similar set of conditions could align resulting in the X25-M performing slower than it should. Intel, having had much experience with similar types of problems (e.g. FDIV, Pentium III 1.13GHz), immediately began working on a fix and released the fix a couple of months after launch. The fix was nondestructive although you saw much better performance if you secure erased your drive first.

SandForce has a similar problem and I have you all and bit-tech to thank for pointing it out. In bit-tech's SandForce SSD reviews they test TRIM functionality by filling a drive with actual data (from a 500GB source including a Windows install, pictures, movies, documents, etc...). The drive is then TRIMed, and performance is measured.

If you look at bit-tech's charts you'll notice that after going through this process, the SandForce drives no longer recover their performance after TRIM. They are stuck in a lower performance state making the drives much slower when writing incompressible data.

You can actually duplicate the bit-tech results without going through all of that trouble. All you need to do is write incompressible data to all pages of a SandForce drive (user accessible LBAs + spare area), TRIM the drive and then measure performance. You'll get virtually the same results as bit-tech:

AS-SSD Incompressible Write Speed
  Clean Performance Dirty (All Blocks + Spare Area Filled) After TRIM
SandForce SF-1200 (120GB) 131.7MB/s 70.3MB/s 71MB/s

The question is why.

I spoke with SandForce about the issue late last year. To understand the cause we need to remember how SSDs work. When you go to write to an SSD, the controller must first determine where to write. When a drive is completely empty, this decision is pretty easy to make. When a drive is not completely full to the end user but all NAND pages are occupied (e.g. in a very well used state), the controller must first supply a clean/empty block for you to write to.

When you fill a SF drive with incompressible data, you're filling all user addressable LBAs as well as all of the drive's spare area. When the SF controller gets a request to overwrite one of these LBAs the drive has to first clean a block and then write to it. It's the block recycling path that causes the aforementioned problem.

In the SF-1200 SandForce can only clean/recycle blocks at a rate of around 80MB/s. Typically this isn't an issue because you won't be in a situation where you're writing to a completely full drive (all user LBAs + spare area occupied with incompressible data). However if you do create an environment where all blocks have data in them (which can happen over time) and then attempt to write incompressible data, the SF-1200 will be limited by its block recycling path.

So why doesn't TRIMing the entire drive restore performance?

Remember what TRIM does. The TRIM command simply tells the controller what LBAs are no longer needed by the OS. It doesn't physically remove data from the SSD, it just tells the controller that it can remove the aforementioned data at its own convenience and in accordance with its own algorithms.

The best drives clean dirty blocks as late as possible without impacting performance. Aggressive garbage collection only increases write amplification and wear on the NAND, which we've already established SandForce doesn't really do. Pair a conservative garbage collection/block recycling algorithm with you attempting to write an already full drive with tons of incompressible data and you'll back yourself into a corner where the SF-1200 continues to be bottlenecked by the block recycling path. The only way to restore performance at this point is to secure erase the drive.

This is a real world performance issue on SF-1200 drives. Over time you'll find that when you go to copy a highly compressed file (e.g. H264 video) that your performance will drop to around 80MB/s. However, the rest of your performance will remain as high as always. This issue only impacts data that can't be further compressed/deduped by the SF controller. While SandForce has attempted to alleviate it in the SF-1200, I haven't seen any real improvements with the latest firmware updates. If you're using your SSD primarily to copy and store highly compressed files, you'll want to consider another drive.

Luckily for SandForce, the SF-2500 controller alleviates the problem. Here I'm running the same test as above. Filling all blocks of the Vertex 3 Pro with incompressible data and then measuring sequential write speed. There's a performance drop, but it's no where near as significant as what we saw with the SF-1200:

AS-SSD Incompressible Write Speed
  Clean Performance Dirty (All Blocks + Spare Area Filled) After TRIM
SandForce SF-1200 (120GB) 131.7 MB/s 70.3 MB/s 71 MB/s
SandForce SF-2500 (200GB) 229.5 MB/s 230.0 MB/s 198.2 MB/s

It looks like SandForce has increased the speed of its block recycling engine among other things, resulting in a much more respectable worst case scenario of ~200MB/s.

Verifying the Fix

I was concerned that perhaps SandForce simply optimized for the manner in which AS-SSD and Iometer write incompressible data. In order to verify the results I took a 6.6GB 720p H.264 movie and copied it from an Intel X25-M G2 SSD to one of two SF drives. The first was a SF-1200 based Corsair Force F120, and the second was an OCZ Vertex 3 Pro (SF-2500).

I measured both clean performance as well as performance after I'd filled all blocks on the drive. The results are below:

6.6GB 720p H.264 File Copy (X25-M G2 Source to Destination)
  Clean Performance Dirty (All Blocks + Spare Area Filled) After TRIM
SandForce SF-1200 (120GB) 138.6 MB/s 78.5 MB/s 81.7 MB/s
SandForce SF-2500 (200GB) 157.5 MB/s 158.2 MB/s 157.8 MB/s

As expected the SF-1200 drive drops from 138MB/s down to 81MB/s. The drive is bottlenecked by its block recycling path and performance never goes up beyond 81MB/s.

The SF-2000 however doesn't drop in performance. Brand new performance is at 157MB/s and post-torture it's still at 157MB/s. What's interesting however is that the incompressible file copy performance here is lower than what Iometer and AS-SSD would have you believe. Iometer warns that even its fully random data pattern can be defeated by drives with good data deduplication algorithms. Unless there's another bottleneck at work here, it looks like the SF-2000 is still reducing the data that Iometer is writing to the drive. The AS-SSD comparison actually makes a bit more sense since AS-SSD runs at a queue depth of 32 and this simple file copy is mostly at a queue depth of 1. Higher queue depths will make better use of parallel NAND channels and result in better performance.

Sequential Read/Write Speed AnandTech Storage Bench 2011: Much Heavier
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  • Slimline - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    This sounds interesting Reply
  • Trefugl - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Indeed. I'm particularly liking the conclusion:

    'We're still a couple months away from knowing exactly what to buy, but if you've been putting off that move to an SSD - 2011 may be the year to finally pull the trigger"

    That pretty much describes me perfectly. I do have an SSD in my work's workstation, but for home, but I've been holding out for 2011 (IMFT 25nm NAND) and I'm thinking I might not be disappointed by the wait.
    Reply
  • Drag0nFire - Friday, February 18, 2011 - link

    Indeed. I'm particularly excited to see what will happen when Intel shows up to the fight. Reply
  • MeanBruce - Friday, February 18, 2011 - link

    Intel announced their 510 SSD G3 series today, it will come in 120Gb and 250Gb capacities, SATA3 6Gb/s, read/writes of 470Mb/s and 315Mb/s respect, and will be priced at $280 and $580! It's not using an Intel controller word is Intel doesn't have an in house controller with any real speed! SandForce is really shakin' things up! ;) Reply
  • MrBrownSound - Friday, February 18, 2011 - link

    woah, no kidding. I'm looking forward to any reviews of it. Reply
  • MeanBruce - Saturday, February 19, 2011 - link

    I knew when Intel pulled their G3 SSD lineup by rescheduling the release it had nothing to do with time constraints and everything to do with the numbers released shortly after by OCZ about their new SandForce controllers, 500/500 read/writes had Intel drawing up an entirely new gameplan for the new G3 lineup! But honestly I thought they would just let a little more magic out of the bag, I had no idea their bag was empty! Now I found out the new 510 series that becomes available March 1st is just going to use a Marvell controller just like the new Crucial and Corsair drives. I still love my X-25M but it's sad when a company with that many resources kicks back on their laurels. Oh well the good news is SandForce is here and with their new client Seagate we will have lots of choices and overall it's just great for the industry at large! Just sucks to watch the one time leader down so low! Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Saturday, February 19, 2011 - link

    Over 50% of the boxes on the Planet still run XP

    So, the big question is...

    Which one is XP compatible Out of the Box?

    I'd love to buy a Sata 3 SSD that can saturate my XP Sata 2 ports but should we stick with Older/Slower Intel Sata 2 SSD's for compatibility??????

    Any comment on this issue?
    Reply
  • anactoraaron - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    I know everyone has their own reason for keeping XP... but if you want to buy a $200+ SSD how can you not pony up the 100 for windows 7?

    Besides, 2 more years until XP is officially obsolete...
    Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Bla bla bla

    Having Windows 7 does not mean we all need to throw out our XP Licences and all our software that does not run on 7

    Why can't somebody just answer my question instead of changing the subject

    We get it! You love all the spyware and DRM built into Windows 7 but others don't

    So lets just stick to the question I asked shall we?

    Which Sata 3 SSDs will be Alignment agnostic at the very least so they can be used on ANY O.S. besides Spyware 7?
    Reply
  • bennyg - Monday, February 21, 2011 - link

    Bla bla bla spyware bla drm bla bla

    You forgot to mention how locking DX10 to Vista/7 was a deliberate ploy to force gameplayers to upgrade.

    And how Win7 is just Vista done right.

    Far out some people hold grudges. I was ambivalent about Win7 when it was forced upon me - but for multicore + SSDs you just can't consider an old OS that wasn't designed when they were on the radar.
    Reply

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