Why SSDs Care About What You Write: Fragmentation & Write Combining

PC Perspective's Allyn Malventano is a smart dude, just read one of his articles to figure that out. He pieced together a big aspect of how the X25-M worked on his own, a major key to how to improve SSD performance.

You'll remember from the Anthology that SSDs get their high performance by being able to write to multiple flash die across multiple channels in parallel. This works very well for very large files since you can easily split the reads and writes across multiple die/channels.

Here we go to write a 128KB file, it's split up and written across multiple channels in our tiny mock SSD:

When we go to read the file, it's read across multiple channels and performance is once again, excellent.

Remember what we talked about before however: small file random read/write performance is actually what ends up being slowest on hard drives. It's what often happens on a PC and thus we run into a problem when performing such an IO. Here we go to write a 4KB file. The smallest size we can write is 4KB and thus it's not split up at all, it can only be written to a single channel:

As Alyn discovered, Intel and other manufacturers get around this issue by combining small writes into larger groups. Random writes rarely happen in a separated manner, they come in bursts with many at a time. A write combining controller will take a group of 4KB writes, arrange them in parallel, and then write them together at the same time.

This does wonders for improving random small file write performance, as everything completes as fast as a larger sequential write would. What it hurts is what happens when you overwrite data.

In the first example where we wrote a 128KB file, look what happens if we delete the file:

Entire blocks are invalidated. Every single LBA in these blocks will come back invalid and can quickly be cleaned.

Look at what happens in the second example. These 4KB fragments are unrelated, so when one is overwritten, the rest aren't. A few deletes and now we're left with this sort of a situation:

Ugh. These fragmented blocks are a pain to deal with. Try to write to it now and you have to do a read-modify-write. Without TRIM support, nearly every write to these blocks will require a read-modify-write and send write amplification through the roof. This is the downside of write combining.

Intel's controller does its best to recover from these situations. That's why its used random write performance is still very good. Samsung's controller isn't very good at recovering from these situations.

Now you can see why performing a sequential write over the span of the drive fixes a fragmented drive. It turns the overly fragmented case into one that's easy to deal with, hooray. You can also see why SSD degradation happens over time. You don't spend all day writing large sequential files to your disk. Instead you write a combination of random and sequential, large and small files to the disk.

The Cleaning Lady and Write Amplification A Wear Leveling Refresher: How Long Will My SSD Last?


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  • Mr Perfect - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    Probably demand. When I saw that price, I shopped around to see what was going on. Answer? Everyone else seems to be out of stock. Reply
  • Naccah - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    I've been waiting to get an SSD till Win 7 released hoping that the prices would have stabilized somewhat by that time. The recent price fluctuation is disturbing as well as the availability of the X25 G2. When the G2 first hit Newegg I was surfing the site and could have grabbed one for $230, but like I said I was content to wait. Now I'm having second thoughts! and wondering if I should grab one if the price goes down again. Reply
  • gfody - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    That doesn't explain the 160gb - it's not even in stock yet. I have been waiting a month for this drive to be in stock and here they more than double the price one day before the ETA date! It's an outrage.. if I'd known the drive was $1000 I would have bought something else.

    Way to screw your customers Newegg
  • araczynski - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    A) your intro has the familiar smell of tomshardware, you'd do to be without that, its unbecoming.

    B) your final words smell of the typical big corp establishment mentality; bigger, faster, more expensive, consumers want! while if the market is any indication, is completely the opposite of the truth. people want 'good enough' for cheap, as the recent Wired magazine article more or less said. granted, Wired isn't the source for indepth technical reading, but it is a good source sometimes of getting the pulse of things...sometimes, still, more often than anything coming out of the mouths of the big corps.

    C) everything in between A and B is great though :) Please leave the opinions/spins to the PR machines.

    Personally, the cost of these things is still more than i'm willing to pay for, for any speed increase. the idiotic shenanigans of firmwares and features only present after special downloads/phases of the moon make me just blow off the whole technology for a few more years. I'll revisit this in say 2 or 3 years, perhaps the MLC's will finally die off and the SLC's (unless i have the 2 backwards) or something better rolls out with a longer lifespan.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    A) My intention with the intro was to convey how difficult it was for me to even get to the point where I felt remotely comfortable publishing this article. I don't like posting something that I don't feel is worthy of the readership's reception. My sincere apologies if it came off as arrogant or anything other than an honest expression of how difficult it was to complete. I was simply trying to bring you all behind the scenes and take you into the crazy place that's my mind for a bit :)

    B) I agree that good enough for cheap is important, hence my Indilinx recommendation at the end. But we can't stifle innovation. We need bigger, better, faster (but not necessarily more expensive, thank you Moore's Law) to keep improving. I remember when the P3 hit 1GHz and everyone said we don't need faster CPUs. If we stopped back then we wouldn't have the apps/web we have today since developers can count on a large install base of very fast processors.

    Imagine what happens in another decade when everyone has many-core CPUs in their notebooks...

    Take care,
  • DynacomDave - Tuesday, September 29, 2009 - link

    First - Anand thanks for the good work and the great article.

    I too have an older laptop that has a PATA interface that I'd like to upgrade with an SSD. I contacted Super Talent about their MasterDrive EX2 - IDE/PATA. Their response was; We only use Indilinx controller for SATA drives, like UltraDrive series. We use Phison controller for EX2/IDE drives.

    I want to improve performance not degrade it. I don't know if this will perform like the Indilinx or like the old SSDs. Can anyone help me with this?
  • bji - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    There are a few more smaller players in the SSD controller game that don't ever show up in these reviews. They are Silicon Motion and Mtron. The reason I am interested in them is because I have a laptop that is PATA only (it's old I know but I love it and I want to extend its life with an SSD), and I am trying to get an SSD that works in it.

    Turns out the Mtron MOBI SSDs are not compatible with this laptop. I have no idea why. So I have put an order into eBay for an SSDFactory SSD and am crossing my fingers that it will work.

    Mtron makes SATA SSD drives so they could be included in these reviews, and I don't know why they are excluded. It would be interesting to see how their controllers stack up. I personally own two Mtron SSD drives (both 32 GB SLC drives) that I tried to get to work in my laptop and failed to - so one is now the system disk in my desktop and it is very fast (at least compared to platter drives, maybe not compared to newer SSDs). The other one I am still trying to find a use for.

    The only Silicon Motion controller drives I have seen are PATA drives so they clearly are a different beast than the SATA drives typically reviewed in these articles. But I would still be interested in seeing the numbers for the Silicon Motion controller just to get an idea of how well they stack up against the other controllers, especially for the 4K random writes tests. The PATA interface ought not to be the limiting factor for that test at least.
  • paesan - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    I see NewEgg has a Patriot Troqx and a Patriot Torqx M28. What is the difference in the 2 drives. Reply
  • paesan - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    After reading thru the Patriot forum I found the differences. The M28 has 128MB cache compared to 64MB cache on the non M28. The biggest difference is the M28 uses a Samsung controller instead of the Indilinx controller on the non M28. I wonder why they switched controllers. Reply
  • valnar - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    It seems to be that using trim would make a "used" SSD faster, no doubt, but is it required? Would it be okay to buy an SSD for a Windows XP box and just set and forget it? Even used and fragmented, it appears to be faster than any hard drive. My second question is longevity. How long would one last compared to a hard drive? Reply

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