The Unmentionables: NAND Mortality Rate

When Intel introduced its X25-M based on 50nm NAND technology we presented this slide:

A 50nm MLC NAND cell can be programmed/erased 10,000 times before it's dead. The reality is good MLC NAND will probably last longer than that, but 10,000 program/erase cycles was the spec. Update: Just to clarify, once you exceed the program/erase cycles you don't lose your data, you just stop being able to write to the NAND. On standard MLC NAND your data should be intact for a full year after you hit the maximum number of p/e cycles.

When we transitioned to 34nm, the NAND makers forgot to mention one key fact. MLC NAND no longer lasts 10,000 cycles at 34nm - the number is now down to 5,000 program/erase cycles. The smaller you make these NAND structures, the harder it is to maintain their integrity over thousands of program/erase cycles. While I haven't seen datasheets for the new 25nm IMFT NAND, I've heard the consumer SSD grade stuff is expected to last somewhere between 3000 - 5000 cycles. This sounds like a very big problem.

Thankfully, it's not.

My personal desktop sees about 7GB of writes per day. That can be pretty typical for a power user and a bit high for a mainstream user but it's nothing insane.

Here's some math I did not too long ago:

  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 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.

Now that calculation is based on 50nm 10,000 p/e cycle NAND. What about 34nm NAND with only 5,000 program/erase cycles? Cut the time in half - 180,000 days. If we're talking about 25nm with only 3,000 p/e cycles the number drops to 108,000 days.

Now this assumes perfect wear leveling and no write amplification. Now the best SSDs don't average more than 10x for write amplification, in fact they're considerably less. But even if you are writing 10x to the NAND what you're writing to the host, even the worst 25nm compute NAND will last you well throughout your drive's warranty.

For a desktop user running a desktop (non-server) workload, the chances of your drive dying within its warranty period due to you wearing out all of the NAND are basically nothing. Note that this doesn't mean that your drive won't die for other reasons before then (e.g. poor manufacturing, controller/firmware issues, etc...), but you don't really have to worry about your NAND wearing out.

This is all in theory, but what about in practice?

Thankfully one of the unwritten policies at AnandTech is to actually use anything we recommend. If we're going to suggest you spend your money on something, we're going to use it ourselves. Not in testbeds, but in primary systems. Within the company we have 5 SandForce drives deployed in real, every day systems. The longest of which has been running, without TRIM, for the past eight months at between 90 and 100% of its capacity.

SandForce, like some other vendors, expose a method of actually measuring write amplification and remaining p/e cycles on their drives. Unfortunately the method of doing so for SandForce is undocumented and under strict NDA. I wish I could share how it's done, but all I'm allowed to share are the results.

Remember that write amplification is the ratio of NAND writes to host writes. On all non-SF architectures that number should be greater than 1 (e.g. you go to write 4KB but you end up writing 128KB). Due to SF's real time compression/dedupe engine, it's possible for SF drives to have write amplification below 1.

So how did our drives fare?

The worst write amplification we saw was around 0.6x. Actually, most of the drives we've deployed in house came in at 0.6x. In this particular drive the user (who happened to be me) wrote 1900GB to the drive (roughly 7.7GB per day over 8 months) and the SF-1200 controller in turn threw away 800GB and only wrote 1100GB to the flash. This includes garbage collection and all of the internal management stuff the controller does.

Over this period of time I used only 10 cycles of flash (it was a 120GB drive) out of a minimum of 3000 available p/e cycles. In eight months I only used 1/300th of the lifespan of the drive.

The other drives we had deployed internally are even healthier. It turns out I'm a bit of a write hog.

Paired with a decent SSD controller, write lifespan is a non-issue. Note that I only fold Intel, Crucial/Micron/Marvell and SandForce into this category. Write amplification goes up by up to an order of magnitude with the cheaper controllers. Characterizing this is what I've been spending much of the past six months doing. I'm still not ready to present my findings but as long as you stick with one of these aforementioned controllers you'll be safe, at least as far as NAND wear is concerned.

 

Architecture & What's New Today: Toshiba 32nm Toggle NAND, Tomorrow: IMFT 25nm
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  • Out of Box Experience - Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks for answering my question

    and you are right

    with over 50% of all PCs still running XP, it would indeed be stupid for the major SSD companies to overlook this important segment of the market

    with their new SSDs ready to launch for Windows 7 machines, they should be releasing plug and play replacements for all the XP machines out there any day now..................NOT!

    Are they stupid or what??

    no conspiracy here folks
    just the facts
    Reply
  • Kjella - Thursday, February 24, 2011 - link

    Fact: Most computers end their life with the same hardware they started with. Only a small DIY market actually upgrades their hard disk and migrates their OS/data. So what if 50% runs XP? 49% of those won't replace their HDD with an SSD anyway. They might get a new machine with an SSD though, and almost all new machines get Windows 7 now. Reply
  • Cow86 - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Very interesting indeed....good article too. One has to wonder though - looking at what is currently happening with 25 nm NAND in vertex 2 drives, which have lower performance and reliability than their 34 nm brethren ánd are sold at the same price without any indication - how the normal Vertex 3 will fare...Hoping they'll be as good in that regard as the original vertex 2's, and I may well indeed jump on the SSD bandwagon this year :) Been holding off for lower price (and higher performance, if I can get it without a big price hike); I want 160 GB to be able to have all my games and OS on there. Reply
  • lecaf - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Vertex 3 with 25 NAND will also suffer performance loss.

    It is not the NAND it self having the issue but the numbers of the chips. You get same capacity with half the chips, so the controller has less opportunity to write in parallel.

    This is the same reason why with Crucial's C300 the larger (256) drive is faster than the smaller (128).

    Speed will drop for smaller drivers but if price goes down this will be counterbalanced by larger capacity faster drives.

    The "if" is very questionable of course considering that OCZ replaced NAND on current Vertex2 with no price cut (not even a change in part number; you just discover you get a slower drive after you mount it)
    Reply
  • InsaneScientist - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Except that there are already twice as many chips as there are channels (8 channels, 16 NAND chips - see pg 3 of the article), so halving the number of chips simply brings the channel to chip ratio down to 1:1, which is hardly a problem.
    It's when you have unused channels that things slow down.
    Reply
  • lecaf - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    1:1 can be a problem... depending who is the bottleneck.

    If NAND speed saturates the channel bandwidth then I agree there is no issue, but if the channel has available bandwidth, it could use it to feed an extra NAND and speed up things.

    But that's theory ... check benchmarks here:
    http://www.storagereview.com/ocz_vertex_2_25nm_rev...
    Reply
  • Chloiber - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    It's possible to use 25nm chips with the same capacity, as OCZ is trying to do right now with the 25nm replacements of the Vertex 2. Reply
  • Nentor - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    Why are they making these flash chips smaller if there are the lower performance and reliability problems?

    What is wrong with 34nm?

    I can understand with cpu there are the benefits of less heat and such, but with the flash chips?
    Reply
  • Zshazz - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    It's cheaper to produce. Less materials used and higher number of product output. Reply
  • semo - Thursday, February 17, 2011 - link

    OCZ should spend less time sending out drives with no housing and work on correctly marketing and naming their 25nm Vertex 2 drives.

    http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?t=21433...

    How can OCZ get away with calling a 55GB drive "60GB" and then trying to bamboozle everyone with technicalities and SandForce marketing words and abbreviations is beyond me.

    It wasn't too long when they were in hot water with their jmicron Core drives and now they're doing this?
    Reply

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