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Solid State Drive Applications in Storage and Embedded Systems

Intel Solid State Drive Architecture and Design Considerations

Most solid state drives have a similar architecture; they all have a circuit board, interface controller, memory subsystem, and a bank of NAND flash memory. Intel SSD is no exception; it has 10 channels of NAND flash attached to the controller and it has a complex flash controller with advanced firmware, which allows it to achieve high random read write performance while at the same time managing the physical NAND to achieve the longest possible use of the drive.

Traditional hard disk drive performance criteria apply directly to SSDs. The most common performance testing metrics are random and sequential sustained read/write bandwidth, random and sequential read/write IOPs, and power consumed in both active and idle states.

Sequential sustained read/write rates are mainly a reflection of the amount of parallel NAND channels that can be activated at once. Intel's 10 NAND channels allow for a very fast sequential throughput to the raw NAND, as is seen in the graph in Figure 1 showing sustained throughput versus data transfer size.

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Figure 1: Performance for random/sequential read/write (Source: Intel Corporation, 2009).

Random sustained read/write rates are mainly due to how well the controller and firmware can handle multiple outstanding requests. Newer SATA system architectures incorporate Native Command Queuing (NCQ), which allows multiple outstanding disk requests to be queued up at the same time. In random performance the Intel X25-M and X18-M Mainstream SATA Solid-State Drives, and Intel X25?E SATA Solid-State Drives provide read performance that is four times that of a typical 2.5" SFF HDD, twice that of a 3.5" enterprise HDD and for random IOPs they provide improvement by several orders of magnitude.

Sequential and random IOPs in SSDs are affected by the number of channels accessing the NAND memory, as well as the architecture of the controller and data management firmware running on that controller. In Figure 1 and Figure 2 you can see Intel's performance across various workload sizes.

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Figure 2: IOPs performance (Source: Intel Corporation, 2009).

Since NAND flash wears out after a certain number of program and erase cycles, the challenge is to extract maximum use from all of the NAND cells. The SSD's controller firmware must make sure that the various program and erase cycles that come to the SSD from the host system are evenly distributed over all sectors of NAND memory providing even wear over the entire drive. If not designed correctly, a log file or page table can wear out one section of the NAND drive too quickly. Figure 3 shows how Intel handles these small writes and spreads the wear over the whole drive, which is shown by charting the program/erase cycle count of each NAND cell within the drive. As one can see, Intel's controller wears evenly across every cell in the drive by distributing the writes evenly.

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Figure 3: Erase cycle count showing Wear Leveling while running MobileMark 2007 (Source: Intel Corporation, 2009).

The second main attribute that contributes to wear on the drive is called Write Amplification (WA), which is basically the amount of data written to the raw NAND divided by the amount of data written to the SSD by the host. This is an issue because NAND cells are only changeable in erase block sizes of at least 128 KB, so if you want to change 1 byte of data in the SSD you have to first erase the block that byte resides in and then update the entire block with that 1 byte modified. The problem arises that more program/erase cycles are being used up than the actual amount of data sent to the drive by the host. Without careful NAND data management, WA levels can range from 20-40x. This means more erases (20-40x) of the NAND are being done then required based on new data sent to the SSD. The ideal case would be a WA of 1.0, which means that exactly the same amount of data would be written to the NAND as would be written to the SSD by the host.

Intel has taken a very close look at how to overcome this significant problem and has designed their controller accordingly. Intel's proprietary algorithms bring the WA of most compute applications very close to the ideal, and as one can see in the graph in Figure 4 for Microsoft Windows XP running MobileMark 2007 we measure a WA of less than 1.1.

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Figure 4: Microsoft Windows XP Mobile workload writes (Source: Intel Corporation, 2009)

Combining optimizations in both wear leveling and WA result in large increases to Intel SSD product longevity.

So far we have looked at a direct comparison between SSDs and HDDs without much examination of their application. There is the obvious direct-replacement market where HDDs are not meeting either the performance or reliability or power requirements of today's compute platforms. With high performance density SSDs the product designer has new options when designing embedded and scalable storage systems. The following sections examine how SSDs fit in today's storage and embedded products as well as how they could possibly be used in new ways to define tiered storage that enables new levels of access performance combined with scalability to many petabytes of capacity using both HDDs and SSDs.

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