The term global warming can be very polarizing in a conversation and both sides of the argument have mountains of material that support or discredit the overall situation. The most devout believers in global warming point to the average temperature increases in the Earth’s atmosphere over the last 100+ years. They maintain the rise is primarily caused by increased greenhouse gases from humans burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

The opposition generally agrees with the measured increase in temperature over that time, but claims that increase is part of a natural cycle of the planet and not something humans can significantly impact one way or another. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 90% of world’s marketed energy consumption is from non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels. Our internet-driven lives run through datacenters that are well-known to consume large quantities of power. No matter which side of the global warming argument you support, most people agree that wasting power is not a good long-term position. Therefore, if the power consumed by datacenters can be reduced, especially as we live in an increasingly digitized world, this would benefit all mankind.

When we look at the most power-hungry components of a datacenter, we find mainly server and storage systems. However, people sometimes forget that those systems require cooling to counteract the heat generated. But the cooling itself consumes even more energy. So anything that can store data more efficiently and quickly will reduce both the initial energy consumption and the energy to cool those systems. As datacenters demand faster data storage, they are shifting to solid state drives (SSDs). SSDs generally provide higher performance per watt of power consumed over hard disk drives, but there is still more that can be done.

Reducing data to help turn down the heat
The good news is that there’s a way to reduce the amount of data that reaches the flash memory of the SSD. The unique DuraWrite™ technology found in all LSI® SandForce® flash controllers reduces the amount of data written to the flash memory to cut the time it takes to complete the writes and therefore reduce power consumption, below levels of other SSD technologies. That, in turn, reduces the cooling needed to further reduce overall power consumption. Now this data reduction is “loss-less,” meaning 100% of what is saved is returned to the host, unlike MPEG, JPEG, and MP3 files, which tolerate some amount of data loss to reduce file sizes.

Today you can find many datacenters already using SandForce Driven SSDs and LSI Nytro™ application acceleration products (which use DuraWrite technology as well). When we start to see datacenters deploying these flash storage products by the millions, you will certainly be able to measure the reduction in power consumed by datacenters. Unfortunately, LSI will not be able to claim it stopped global warming, but at least we, and our customers, can say we did something to help defer the end result.

 

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Have you ever run out of gas in your car? Do you often risk running your gas tank dry? Hopefully you are more cautious than that and you start searching for a gas station when you get down to a ¼ tank. You do this because you want plenty of cushion in case something comes up that prevents you from getting to a station before it is too late.

The reason most people stretch their tank is to maximize travel between station visits. The downside to pushing the envelope to “E” is you can end up stranded with a dead vehicle waiting for AAA to bring you some gas.

Now most people know you don’t put gas in a solid state drive (SSD), but the pros and cons associated with how much you leave in the “tank” is very relevant to SSDs.

To understand how these two seemingly unrelated technologies are similar, we first need to drill into some technical SSD details. To start, SSDs act, and often look, like traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), but they do not record data in the same way. SSDs today typically use NAND flash memory to store data and a flash controller to connect the memory with the host computer. The flash controller can write a page of data (often 4,096 bytes) directly to the flash memory, but cannot overwrite the same page of data without first erasing it. The erase cycle cannot expunge only a single page. Instead, it erases a whole block of data (usually 128 pages). Because the stored data is sometimes updated randomly across the flash, the erase cycle for NAND flash requires a process called garbage collection.

Garbage collection is just dumping the trash
Garbage collection starts when a flash block is full of data, usually a mix of valid (good) and invalid (older, replaced) data. The invalid data must be tossed out to make room for new data, so the flash controller copies the valid data of a flash block to a previously erased block, and skips copying the invalid data of that block. The final step is to erase the original whole block, preparing it for new data to be written.

Before and during garbage collection, some data – valid data copied during garbage collection and the (typically) multiple copies of the invalid data – is in two or more locations at once, a phenomenon known as write amplification. To store this extra data not counted by the operating system, the flash controller needs some spare capacity beyond what the operating system knows. This is called over-provisioning (OP), and it is a critical part of every NAND flash-based SSD.

Over-provisioning is like the gas that remains in your tank
While every SSD has some amount of OP, some will have more or less than others. The amount of OP varies depending on trade-offs made between total storage capacity and benefits in performance and endurance. The less OP allocated in an SSD, the more information a user can store. This is like the driver who will take their tank of gas clear down to near-empty just to maximize the total number of miles between station visits.

What many SSD users don’t realize is there are major benefits to NOT stretching this OP area too thin. When you allocate more space for OP, you achieve a lower write amplification, which translates to a higher performance during writes and longer endurance of the flash memory. This is like the driver who is more cautious and visits the gas station more often to enable greater flexibility in selecting a more cost-effective station, and allows for last-minute deviations in travel plans that end up burning more fuel than originally anticipated.

The choice is yours
Most SSD users do not realize they have full control of how much OP is configured in their SSD. So even if you buy an SSD with “0%” OP, you can dedicate some of the user space back to OP for the SSD.

A more detailed presentation of how OP works and what 0% OP really means was presented at the Flash Memory Summit 2012 and can be viewed with this link for your convenience: http://www.lsi.com/downloads/Public/Flash%20Storage%20Processors/LSI_PRS_FMS2012_TE21_Smith.pdf

It pays to be the cautious driver who fills the gas tank long before you get to empty. When it comes to both performance and endurance, your SSD will cover a lot more ground if you treat the over-provisioning space the same way – keeping more in reserve.

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Most people fully understand that electronics are useless without power, but what happens when devices lose power in the middle of operating? That answer is highly dependent on a number of variables including what type of electronic device is in question.

For solid state drives (SSDs) the answer depends on factors such as whether an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) is connected, what controller or flash processor is used, the design of the power circuit of the SSD, and the type of memory. If an SSD is in the middle of a write operation to the flash memory and power to the SSD is disconnected, many bad things could happen if the right safety measures are not in place. Many users do not think about all the non-user initiated operations the SSDs may be performing like background garbage collection that could be under way when the power fails. Without the correct protection, in most cases data will be corrupted.

According to the Nielsen company, 108.4 million viewers were tuned into the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans only to be shocked to witness the power go down for 34 minutes in the middle of the game. If power can be lost during such an incredibly high profile event such as this, it can happen just about anywhere.

Inside the New Orleans Superdome stadium operations and broadcast server rooms
Enterprise computing environments typically have multiple servers with data connections and lots of storage. Over the past few years, a larger percentage of the storage is kept on SSDs for the very active or “hot” data. This greatly improves data access time and reduces overall latency of the system. Enterprise servers are often connected to UPS systems that supply the connected devices with temporary power during a power failure.

Usually this is enough power to support uninterrupted system operations until power is restored, or at least until technicians can complete their current work and shut down safely. However there are many times when UPS systems are not deployed or fail to operate properly themselves. In those cases, the server will experience a power failure as abrupt as if someone had yanked the power cord from the wall socket.

The LSI® SandForce® flash controllers are at the heart of many popular SSDs sold today. The flash controller connects the host computer with the flash memory to store user data in fast non-volatile memory. The SandForce flash controllers are specifically engineered to operate in different environments, and the SF-2500/2600 FSPs are designed to provide the high level of data integrity required for enterprise applications. In the area of power failure protection, they include a combination of firmware (FW) and hardware circuitry that monitors the power coming into the SSD. In the event of a power failure or even a brown-out, the flash controller is alerted to the situation and hold-up capacitors in the SSD provide the necessary power and time for the controller to complete pending writes to the flash memory. This same circuit is also designed to prevent the risk of lower page corruption with Multi-level Cell (MLC) memory.

Watch out for SSD solutions that provide backup capacitors, but lack the necessary support circuitry and special firmware to ensure the data is fully committed to the flash memory before the power runs out. Even if these other special circuits are present, only truly enterprise SSDs that are meticulously designed and tested to withstand power failures are up to the task of storing and protecting highly critical data.

In the control room and down on the field
The usage patterns of non-enterprise systems like notebooks and ultrabooks call for a different power failure support mechanism. Realize that when you have a notebook or ultrabook system, you have a built in mini-UPS system. A power outage from the wall socket has no impact to the system until the battery gets low. At that point the operating system will tell the computer to shut down and that will be ample warning for the SSD to safely shut down and ensure the integrity of the data. But what if the operating system locks up and does not warn the SSD or the system is an A/C-powered desktop without a battery?

The LSI SF-2100/2200 FSPs are purpose-built for these client environments and operate with the assumption that power could disappear at any point in time. They use special FW techniques so that even without a battery present, as is the case with desktop systems, they greatly limit the potential for data loss.

The naked facts
It should be clear that the answer to the original question is highly dependent upon the flash controller at the heart of the SSD. Without having the critical features discussed above and designed into the LSI SandForce flash controllers, it is very possible to lose data during a power failure. The LSI SandForce flash controllers are engineered to withstand power failures like the one that hit New Orleans at the Super Bowl, but don’t expect them to fix wardrobe malfunctions.

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big fish swallowing small fishMerging the working cultures of two different companies can be a very complex task. In my past experience with these situations I have not typically found the result to be highly positive for the employees of the incoming company.

As one example, the acquiring company may tell the employees they will be able to keep their startup environment and mentality, but within one or two quarters nearly all of those attributes are eliminated and the employees just become another cog in the bigger machine. After that the drive and creativity that was fostered with that startup mentality often disappears.

Year two and still happily married
In the first week of 2012, LSI completed the acquisition of SandForce, further expanding its growing coverage of flash memory technology IP. SandForce had grown significantly since its emergence from stealth mode in 2009 to become a leading provider of flash controllers for enterprise, cloud and client solid state storage solutions.

The SandForce team was kept in whole and created the Flash Components Division of LSI. The team even continues to reside in the same building it had occupied the prior year, further supporting the internal feeling of their original startup mentality. Most of the original culture of SandForce was kept intact and that enabled the transition into the larger LSI Corporation much easier for most people. Because those changes were spread out over a longer period of time it was easier for the team to digest with minimal disruption to their daily flow.

For the business side of the acquisition, there has been significant upside as a result of the merger. Over the last 14 months, both companies have invested significant time and resources to leverage the SandForce® flash controller technology across the company. LSI had already designed a high-end enterprise solution using the SandForce technology in their PCIe based Nytro™ product line. With both companies now under one umbrella, the engineering teams are free to develop advanced capabilities between the products to enable deeper integration that will result in greater customer benefits.

Greater efficiency … for the sake of customers
As a single larger company, LSI is now able to redistribute engineering and support resources as needed to better align with the quick expansion of flash memory storage solutions for its customers. It is also much easier to ensure a higher level of interoperability between related products and solutions. Many of the customers already purchasing LSI products can use the same sales and support teams already in place to access and incorporate a larger set of solutions from LSI.

Enterprise storage manufacturers have millions if not billions of dollars of revenue and their reputation at stake when they select new and emerging technologies like flash memory to provide storage for their customers. There is always a level of concern when these companies work with smaller startup organizations. The high-technology industry is full of company names that had a great technology, but for one reason or another they could not sustain the business and fell into oblivion. The acquisition of SandForce by LSI adds the support and confidence of a multi-billion dollar company to help assuage any possible concerns of those enterprise manufacturers.

Personally, as one of the early SandForce employees, I have found the acquisition to be very beneficial to everyone involved including employees, customers, and end users. I look forward to further advancements we will make to the flash industry as we continue to drive flash memory into the storage industry.

 

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