Flash storage 101: How solid state storage works

Why flash writes are troublesome, why endurance is limited and what suppliers are doing to overcome these issues

Flash storage is the technology of the moment, providing high-performance random I/O capabilities far in excess of what can be achieved with mechanical hard drives.

But what’s going on inside a flash drive? Why are writes much more troublesome than reads in flash? Why are flash drives' lifetimes limited? And what are flash storage makers doing to overcome these issues?

In this article we look at exactly what flash storage is, how it is managed at controller level and some of the clever work storage makers do to get the best out of solid state.

Flash deconstructed

When we talk about flash storage we usually mean Nand flash, which is solid-state memory made of millions of Nand memory gates on a silicon die.

Flash technology recently reached its 30th birthday and manufacturers continue to push the boundaries of density on a single chip, which now extend into three dimensions with technology such as V-Nand from Samsung (pictured).

Flash is similar to system memory in that there are no moving parts, but it has the additional property that its contents are not lost when power is turned off.

Data is stored in cells, which gives us the terminology used to describe the main forms of flash, namely SLC, MLC and TLC.

SLC stands for single-level cell in which each memory cell records only a single value (of two states) – on or off, 0 or 1, based on the voltage of the cell. MLC, or multi-level cell, is capable of storing up to four states representing two bits of data – 00, 01, 10 or 11. TLC – triple-level cell – stores three bits in a single cell, using the eight states from 000 to 111.

Flash devices such as solid state disks (SSDs) are Nand chips packaged with additional circuitry and firmware known as a controller, which is responsible for managing the reading and writing process, as well as other ancillary tasks.

Flash reads and writes

Cells on flash storage are arranged into pages (typically 4KB or 8KB in size) and further grouped into blocks of around 128KB to 256KB, with some checksum data. The exact size depends on the flash manufacturer and product line.

The properties of Nand flash are such that a single value in a cell can be changed from “1” to “0” but not the other way around without reformatting the entire block, a process known as a program-erase (P/E) cycle.

As a result, writing data to flash in place requires the reading of an entire block from flash and into the memory of the controller, updating it with new data, erasing the existing block and writing the data back to the flash device. This inefficient multi-stage process is known as write amplification, where each write operation to flash requires more than one physical write I/O.

Write amplification is a problem for flash devices because Nand chips are degraded slightly with every write operation and so devices have a finite number of P/E cycles. SLC Nand has a P/E cycle count of around 100,000 per block, but MLC can be as low as 5,000 per block of data.

The finite lifetime of flash means that writing data back in place repeatedly (for example, a file or database column re-written multiple times) can very quickly result in a device failure. For this reason, flash drive manufacturers have employed techniques in the controller to mitigate the shortcomings of flash lifetime.

As techniques such as wear levelling distribute write I/O across an entire device, blocks start to fill up with pages of both in-use (or valid) and invalidated data that has been moved elsewhere in the device

Wear levelling

Wear levelling is one technique flash drive manufacturers use to improve device endurance or lifetime. Rather than storing data in the same place, wear levelling distributes write I/O blocks across the entire flash device, always writing to a new empty page. The result is more even wear across all Nand cells and increased device lifetime.

In addition to MTBF (mean time between failures), manufacturers also quote a figure known as DWPD (device/drive writes per day), which provides a measure of how many complete drive writes can be sustained over a fixed period (usually three to five years) before the device can be expected to fail.

DWPD figures vary greatly, from less than one to as high as 50, depending on whether the device is for the consumer or enterprise market. Naturally, devices with higher endurance attract a higher price.

Value in the controller

Controller circuitry and firmware performs the task of managing I/O back and forth from the Nand chips. Flash drive suppliers have invested significantly in optimising the firmware to work with Nand to deliver improved product lifetimes.

Garbage collection

As we have seen, flash device architectures store data in pages, which are grouped together in blocks for P/E cycles.

As techniques such as wear levelling distribute write I/O across an entire device, blocks start to fill up with pages of both in-use (or valid) and invalidated data that has been moved elsewhere in the device.

To re-use these invalidated pages, the entire block must be erased. A process called garbage collection manages the movement and consolidation of valid pages between blocks, allowing an entire block to be erased for subsequent re-use.

The effectiveness of the garbage collection process can have a direct effect on performance of flash. When data is initially written to an SSD, the contents are placed on empty or partially filled blocks and very fast write times result.

But, at some point the controller needs to start reclaiming pages for re-use and when this occurs devices can experience a dip in performance, sometimes called the “write cliff”.

The quality of algorithms used to perform garbage collection have a direct impact on performance – yet again demonstrating the importance of controller features.

Normally reads and writes occur at page level but deletes can only occur at the (larger) block level. In the normal write process, deletes occur at block level but Trim allows the erase part of the P/E cycle to occur earlier

Cutting write times with Trim

As we have seen, all issues with flash occur when writing to the device. So, if you can cut down on the processes involved in write I/O, it can improve device performance and lifetime.

One technique used to avoid write I/O is Trim. This allows the operating system (OS) to flag blocks of data that have been released from the local file system and to begin the erase process before the next write occurs.

Normally reads and writes occur at page level but deletes can only occur at the (larger) block level. In the normal write process, deletes occur at block level but Trim allows the erase part of the P/E cycle to occur earlier.

Trim is supported by the major OSs and by the SCSI protocol as the Unmap command, which in turn is supported by the major hypervisor suppliers.

Supplier implementations

Flash devices have very different characteristics to hard drives. As a result, array suppliers have had to either develop new architectures designed around flash; or modify existing products to deal with flash drives.

Techniques include reading and writing in block sizes to match the drive being used, as seen in EMC XtremIO and HP’s 3PAR StoreServ systems.

Meanwhile, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) designed its own flash module, which consolidates management functions into a custom controller, rather than using commodity SSDs. In a similar way, Violin Memory implements system-level wear levelling across all custom modules in its system, rather than on each drive.

Some of these flash benefits are implemented in hardware, but typically innovations are achieved through architectural design and software. This should come as no surprise, as increasingly we are seeing storage move towards a software-defined world.

Next Steps

Learn how to implement a flash storage SSD in hyper-converged platforms

This was last published in November 2014

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