Strength in Numbers, What makes SSDs Fast

Given the way a single NAND-flash IC is organized one thing should come to mind: parallelism.

Fundamentally the flash that’s used in SSDs cut from the same cloth as the flash that’s used in USB drives. And if you’ve ever used a USB flash drive you know that those things aren’t all that fast. Peak performance to a single NAND-flash IC is going to be somewhere in the 5 - 40MB/s range. You get the faster transfer rates by reading/writing in parallel to multiple die in the same package.

The real performance comes from accessing multiple NAND ICs concurrently. If each device can give you 20MB/s of bandwidth and you’ve got 10 devices you can access at the same time, that’s 200MB/s of bandwidth. While hard drives like reads/writes to be at the same place on the drive, SSDs don’t mind; some are even architected to prefer that data be spread out all over the drive so it can hit as many flash devices as possible in tandem. Most drives these days have 4 - 10 channel controllers.

The Recap

I told you I’d mention this again because it’s hugely important, so here it is:

A single NAND flash die is subdivided into blocks. The typical case these days is that each block is 512KB in size. Each block is further subdivided into pages, with the typical page size these days being 4KB.

Now you can read and write to individual pages, so long as they are empty. However once a page has been written, it can’t be overwritten, it must be erased first before you can write to it again. And therein lies the problem, the smallest structure you can erase in a NAND flash device today is a block. Once more, you can read/write 4KB at a time, but you can only erase 512KB at a time.

It gets worse. Every time you erase a block, you reduce the lifespan of the flash. Standard MLC NAND flash can only be erased 10,000 times before it goes bad and stops storing data.

Based on what I’ve just told you there are two things you don’t want to do when writing to flash: 1) you don’t want to overwrite data, and 2) you don’t want to erase data. If flash were used as a replacement for DVD-Rs then we wouldn’t have a problem, but it’s being used as a replacement for conventional HDDs. Who thought that would be a good idea?

It turns out that the benefits are more than worth the inconvenience of dealing with these pesky rules; so we work around them.

Most people don’t fill up their drives, so SSD controller makers get around the problem by writing to every page on the drive before ever erasing a single block.

If you go about using all available pages to write to and never erasing anything from the drive, you’ll eventually run out of available pages. I’m sure there’s a fossil fuel analogy somewhere in there. While your drive won’t technically be full (you may have been diligently deleting files along the way and only using a fraction of your drive’s capacity), eventually every single block on your drive will be full of both valid and invalid pages.

In other words, even if you’re using only 60% of your drive, chances are that 100% of your drive will get written to simply by day to day creation/deletion of files.

The Anatomy of an SSD The Blind SSD
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  • sbuckler - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Depends on how smart the controller is? Shuffling around the data now and again in the background would make sense. Reply
  • Frallan - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link


    @AT
    This is why i come to AT to read up on the developments.

    @OCZ
    Well played :0)

    The ruler of the roost are the Intels however I will be able to afford one of those when there are cows enjoying themselfs by dancing on the moon. My next upgrade will be a Vertex - not only bc its Valu for money but equally much bc. OCZ obviously takes care of thier customers and listens to reason.
    Reply
  • pmonti80 - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    This is the kind of article that makes me come back here. Reply
  • nowayout99 - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    OCZ, you should listen to Uncle Anand. ;) Hopefully Mr. Petersen understands that it's tough love.

    And the final product seems perfectly cool -- great performance at a better price than Intel. It's the first SSD I'd be able to reasonably consider.
    Reply
  • SOLIDNecro - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Thx for this article Anand, I have been in a hotly contested debate over OCZ vs Samsung with my "Asperger Enhanced" nemisis/close friend...
    (In all fairness, I should mention I use the BiPolar SSE instruction set myself)

    He was only looking at Samsung, I said he should look into what OCZ has now.

    His reply was "I don't know them, and don't want to be disapointed"
    (Long story behind that...He's from the Server/Workstain/HPC crowd, I am from the hardcore OC/Gamer/Desktop group, so he is not familiar with OCZ)

    Looks like the Samsung (And alot of others) has "Issues" with performance degrading over time that are somewhat solved by Intel and OCZ (Plus maybe a few other companies that use the Rev B JMicron controller on there low cost SSD's)

    I agree the OCZ Vertex offers the best bang for low buck SSD today, and I am tempted to grab one. But a year from now, anyone that bought a current gen MLC SSD will be saying "I coulda had a V-8" if that TRIM technology does what it promises!!!
    Reply
  • James5mith - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    As people continue to try and push the envelope of storage performance in a variety of ways, and as 6gbps SATA becomes available, the performance of SSD's will only go up.

    As always, I wanted to say thanks for the great article and keep them coming. It's the only way the rest of us can keep pace with what's happening out there in the world of performance storage.
    Reply
  • vailr - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - link

    Is there any benefit in using 2 SSD's in a Raid 0 configuration?
    And: any differences between motherboard Intel Raid vs. a Raid controller card from Areca, for example. Also: can the "Trim" command work while in Raid mode? Probably not, I'm guessing...
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Thursday, March 19, 2009 - link

    Raid0 is really the holy grail for SSD's. The low risk of failure of SSD's which normally makes Raid0 with typical mechanical HD's more dangerous is very appealing. My personal storage-size goal is ~120-160gigs. Once they reach that size for under $300 I think I'm going to jump in. But I'm more likely to grab 2 60's or 2 80's and Raid0 them than get a single large SSD. The added performance will outweigh the higher power draw of 2 drives, and should make them extremely competitive with Intel's offerings (or whatever holds the crown at the time).

    I figure it will be about a year or so until the prices are in that range, as 2 60gig Vertex drives will currently run you about $400 after rebate.

    I can't wait to jump on that upgrade and will then put my current 250gig mechanical drive as the storage drive (I don't use a ton of space in general as I have a 320gig external backup).
    Reply
  • Rasterman - Thursday, March 19, 2009 - link

    The problem with doing that is if you want to move your drives to another system they won't work, so upgrading is a pain. You could image them I guess, but plugging one drive in is much simpler. I had an older XP install that made it through 3-4 different systems.

    I would also question real world results, if you're going at 250MB/s or 500MB/s its not even going to be noticeable unless you are doing some massive video editing or some other huge file operations, and as Anand says, SSDs don't fill this role right now as they are super expensive per GB. So if you really are editing video a lot, you are going to need a hell of a lot more space than SSDs can offer you.
    Reply
  • Gasaraki88 - Friday, March 20, 2009 - link

    RAID is a universal standard so if you take two RAID0 drives out and move them to another computer with a RAID controller, it SHOULD just work if the original RAID was doing it correctly. Reply

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