3D NAND: How It Works

To understand how 3D NAND helps to keep Moore's Law in action, we first need to go in-depth with the structure. Before we begin, there are a couple of disclaimers I want to get out. First of all, every manufacturer has a different 3D NAND structure, so to avoid information overflow and confusion, I will only talk about Samsung's structure for now. When other manufacturers are ready with their 3D NAND products, I will provide a similar analysis of their structure. Secondly, there is not much detailed information about Samsung's 3D NAND, or V-NAND as they call it, so I am mostly basing my analysis on The Memory Guy's blog post (also known as Jim Handy, a respected semiconductor analyst). 

What you are seeing above is a 5-layer 3D NAND string based on Samsung's TCAT (Terabit Cell Array Transistor) structure. It consists of a total of ten cells and similar to 2D NAND each cell is capable of holding one, two or three bits of data depending on whether the NAND is SLC, MLC or TLC. Samsung's current (i.e. second) generation V-NAND has 32 layers, meaning that it is simply a taller tower but to keep the graph easily readable I decreased the number of layers to five.

There is one fundamental difference between Samsung's V-NAND. With 2D NAND, the charge was stored in a conductive floating gate but as you can see in the graph above, there is not one in Samsung's V-NAND. Instead Samsung uses a design called Charge Trap Flash (CTF), which means that the charge is stored in an insulator, which is silicon nitride in this case. 

Some of you might remember this rather hilarious slide we used in our V-NAND announcement article and I now have an explanation as to why Samsung used cheese in in (yes, it indeed is cheese). A traditional floating gate works pretty much like a bucket of water. As long as there is not a hole in the bucket, the water stays there without an issue. However, if you get even a tiny hole in the bucket, all the water will sooner than later escape through that hole. It is the same with a floating gate because if there is a hole in the insulating material around it (Inter Poly Dielectric and tunnel oxide), all the electrons in the floating gate will escape through that as the floating gate is conductive and the electrons can move freely. As I mentioned on the previous page, this is exactly what happens when NAND is cycled and wears out because the stress caused by the programming operation causes the insulators to lose their insulating characteristics. 

With Charge Trap Flash that does not happen because the electrons reside in an insulator. Samsung compared the bucket of water idea to cheese, meaning that if there is a hole the cheese will not just pour out from it like water would. 

As a result, Charge Trap Flash increases endurance as it is not as vulnerable to wear out. I am also told that CTF does not require as high programming voltages as floating gates do (up to 20V), which reduces the stess on the insulators. I wonder if this is simply because the insulators do not have to be that thick anymore (a miminum of 7nm for tunnel oxide and 12nm for ONO) because the charge trap is not as dependent on the surrounding insulators as floating gate is. The reason why such a high voltage is needed for 2D NAND programming is the thickness of the tunnel oxide because otherwise the electrons cannot tunnel through (remember, the electrons are shot through an insulator). On the other hand, the tunnel oxide cannot be made any thinner than 7nm or otherwise data retention takes a massive hit (NAND is really an engineers dream, isn't it? Touch one thing and you break another).

Another interesting tidbit regarding Samsung’s V-NAND is the usage of a high-K dielectrics. IMFT did a similar switch when they moved to 20nm node but all the other manufacturers, as far as I know, have stayed with an inter poly dielectric (IPD) design. I went into detail about high-K dielectrics in our Crucial MX100 review but I will provide a quick summary here. Basically, a high-K dielectric is a material with a high dielectric constant, which is quite surprisingly known as K. The benefit of a high-K dielectric over a normal dielectric (like oxide-nitride-oxide i.e. ONO in NAND) is that it provides a higher capacitance between the word and bitlines. Similar to 2D NAND, the capacitance between the control gate and the floating gate, or charge trap in the case of V-NAND, is still the key factor for operation. The usage of high-K dielectrics gives Samsung a bit more headroom in terms of vertical scaling as layers can be stacked closer to each other and it also improves endurance as high-K dielectrics have less leakage compared to normal dielectrics.

Otherwise the basics of V-NAND are very similar to 2D NAND. To program a cell, the bitline is grounded (i.e. held at 0V) while a high voltage is placed on the wordline. That makes the electrons that are floating in the bitline to tunnel through the silicon dioxide to the charge trap a.k.a. silicon nitride. 

I made a very simple graph of V-NAND programming, which should help you to understand the process. The elements are the same as in the tower graph with the difference that it is just one layer and I cut the tower in half to fit it on the page. The purple balls are electrons.

Reading from V-NAND works exactly the same as with 2D NAND. The wordline of the cell-to-be-read is held at 0V while different voltages are applied on the bitline. Once the correct voltage is found, the cell will conduct and the sense amp will read the data depending on what the voltage was (the voltage determines the voltage state, i.e. what the value is). 

Why We Need 3D NAND 3D NAND: Hitting The Reset Button on Scaling
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  • Homeles - Monday, June 30, 2014 - link

    Man, the 850 Pro is killer. Samsung really knocked it out of the park. Those prices are just completely out of touch, though.
  • Awful - Monday, June 30, 2014 - link

    Yeah the prices are high for now. Game changing stuff though; and prices can only come down. PCIe V-NAND? Yes please!
  • Hung_Low - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Even better, Intel style NVMe controller + this v-nand!! orgasmic
  • avyshue - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    yeah, i've been holding off on upgrading from my existing 128 boot drive + mechanical setup to a full 1TB drive. I think I'll keep holding out until PCIe is better supported/better priced.
  • Angrychair - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    The prices are in line for class leading performance and reliability.

    The reliability is the critical part, these are drives that are unlikely to wear out in any system almost no matter how heavily taxed.
  • Ken_g6 - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I see these are MLC drives. Hopefully, Samsung will come out with consumer-level 3D TLC drives that have relatively good reliability, and a price at or below Crucial's drives.
  • frenchy_2001 - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Reliability is a side effect of retreating to 40nm pitch technology.
    Even if they decided to do TLC with the same cells, they would probably end up being more reliable than 2D nand MLC.
  • joelypolly - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    They already have drives in testing that has written over 8 petabytes so I think the reliability is there
  • mkozakewich - Saturday, July 5, 2014 - link

    On that note, I'm wondering how 4-bit MLC would perform compared to 2D NAND.
  • RaistlinZ - Monday, June 30, 2014 - link

    Fantastic drives! That consistency is really remarkable. I don't know if most will pay the price premium for these over the EVO however. The average user probably wouldn't notice a difference in general day to day use.

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