Understanding TLC NANDby Kristian Vättö on February 23, 2012 1:14 PM EST
Our thoughts are a bit mixed. On the one hand, cheaper SSDs are exactly what consumers want. The performance is still there compared to hard drives, no matter what NAND is used. If you go to an Apple Store today and try out MacBook Air and Mac Pro, the MacBook Air will often feel faster, even though it's the slower Mac in terms of processing power. This is solely due to the presence of an SSD. An SSD can bring new life to a computer that is otherwise considered obsolete. That's why we think everyone would want an SSD, but it's understandable that the masses won't adopt SSDs until the price and capacities are reasonable. This is definitely where TLC shines—it provides us with noticeably cheaper SSDs, possibly cheap enough for the masses to adopt (e.g. well under $1 per GB).
On the other hand, we're concerned that the cut in prices is done at the expense of endurance. One advantage often heard about buying an SSD is that SSDs are a lot more reliable than hard drives. In terms of P/E cycles, that is probably true with current MLC NAND. However, there have been quite a few widespread firmware issues, such as SF-2281 BSOD and Intel 320 Series 8MB bugs. Those have been fixed, and we may finally be looking at SSDs which have good performance, adequate endurance, and are more or less trouble-free. However, TLC will require new controller logic, and new logic may result in additional firmware issues.
The earliest SSDs lacked performance, even though they were faster than most hard drives, especially in seek times. In just a few years, performance has increased exponentially, maybe even to a point where the average user won't notice the difference between the fastest SSD and a mediocre SSD.
Given the desire for performance, reliability, and cost, TLC NAND may take away one from the triplet: endurance. Notice we said "may", because P/E cycles aren't everything. It has been claimed that algorithms to minimize write amplification will follow Moore's Law, just like NAND does. In other words, every time there is a die shrink, wear leveling has been improved in order to keep endurance the same. On top of that, improvements in manufacturing technologies can keep the P/E count up as well. 20nm IMFT MLC is claimed to have 3000-5000 P/E cycles, just like 25nm IMFT MLC.
The good news is, MLC NAND will stay in production and hence MLC NAND based SSDs are not going anywhere. What TLC will provide is freedom of choice. If you use your computer for checking email and browsing the Internet, no doubt a TLC based SSD will be sufficient. For the majority of consumers, TLC SSDs should meet their demands.
In addition, the SSD market is evolving quickly; if you buy the best SSD today, it won't be the best for very long. Let's say that it lasts you for four years. In that time, the SSD market will change a lot—four years ago, we were looking at 16GB SSDs for nearly $600! By the time a typical SSD is ready for replacement, you will be looking at much faster SSD with more capacity, and likely for a lower price. In 4.5 years, we have gone from that 16GB offering with performance that often trailed behind contemporary HDDs to 120GB SSDs that are up to a couple orders of magnitude faster than HDDs on random access patterns (and still several times faster for sequential tranfers), all for a starting price of around $170. If that pattern holds for the next four years, we'll be looking at ~1TB SSDs in four years that offer transfer rates that would saturate multi-lane PCIe interfaces at even lower prices. While we expect the rate of progress to be quite a bit slower over the next four years, there's still plenty of room for improvements in SSD technology.
As far as TLC-based SSDs are concerned, all we can do now is to wait for the first product announcements to come. Once we get some review samples, we'll be sure to put them through our SSD test suite and see how they stack up to existing drives.