A Wear Leveling Refresher: How Long Will My SSD Last?

As if everything I’ve talked about thus far wasn’t enough to deal with, there’s one more major issue that directly impacts the performance of these drives: wear leveling.

Each MLC NAND cell can be erased ~10,000 times before it stops reliably holding charge. You can switch to SLC flash and up that figure to 100,000, but your cost just went up 2x. For these drives to succeed in the consumer space and do it quickly, it must be using MLC flash.

SLC (left) vs. MLC (right) flash

Ten thousand erase/write cycles isn’t much, yet SSD makers are guaranteeing their drives for anywhere from 1 - 10 years. On top of that, SSD makers across the board are calling their drives more reliable than conventional hard drives.

The only way any of this is possible is by some clever algorithms and banking on the fact that desktop users don’t do a whole lot of writing to their drives.

Think about your primary hard drive. How often do you fill it to capacity, erase and start over again? Intel estimates that even if you wrote 20GB of data to your drive per day, its X25-M would be able to last you at least 5 years. Realistically, that’s a value far higher than you’ll use consistently.

My personal desktop saw about 100GB worth of writes (whether from the OS or elsewhere) to my SSD and my data drive over the past 14 days. That’s a bit over 7GB per day of writes. Let’s do some basic math:

  My SSD
NAND Flash Capacity 256 GB
Formatted Capacity in the OS 238.15 GB
Available Space After OS and Apps 185.55 GB
Spare Area 17.85 GB


If I never install another application and just go about my business, my drive has 203.4GB of space to spread out those 7GB of writes per day. That means in roughly 29 days my SSD, if it wear levels perfectly, I will have written to every single available flash block on my drive. Tack on another 7 days if the drive is smart enough to move my static data around to wear level even more properly. So we’re at approximately 36 days before I exhaust one out of my ~10,000 write cycles. Multiply that out and it would take 360,000 days of using my machine the way I have been for the past two weeks for all of my NAND to wear out; once again, assuming perfect wear leveling. That’s 986 years. Your NAND flash cells will actually lose their charge well before that time comes, in about 10 years.

This assumes a perfectly wear leveled drive, but as you can already guess - that’s not exactly possible.

Write amplification ensures that while my OS may be writing 7GB per day to my drive, the drive itself is writing more than 7GB to its flash. Remember, writing to a full block will require a read-modify-write. Worst case scenario, I go to write 4KB and my SSD controller has to read 512KB, modify 4KB, write 512KB and erase a whole block. While I should’ve only taken up one write cycle for 2048 MLC NAND flash cells, I will have instead knocked off a single write cycle for 262,144 cells.

You can optimize strictly for wear leveling, but that comes at the expense of performance.

Why SSDs Care About What You Write: Fragmentation & Write Combining Why Does My 80GB Drive Appear as 74.5GB? Understanding Spare Area
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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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?

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