In today’s solid state drives (SSDs), the NAND flash memory must be erased before it can store new data. In other words, data cannot be overwritten directly as it is in a hard disk drive (HDD). Instead, SSDs use a process called garbage collection (GC) to reclaim the space taken by previously stored data. This means that write demands are heavier on SSDs than HDDs when storing the same information.

This is bad because the flash memory in the SSD supports only a limited number of writes before it can no longer be read. We call this undesirable effect write amplification (WA). In my blog, Gassing up your SSD, I describe why WA exists in a little more detail, but here I will explain what controls it.

It’s all about the free space
I often tell people that SSDs work better with more free space, so anything that increases free space will keep WA lower. The two key ways to expand free space (thereby decreasing WA) are to 1) increase over provisioning and 2) keep more storage space free (if you have TRIM support).

As I said earlier, there is no WA before GC is active. However, this pristine pre-GC condition has a tiny life span – just one full-capacity write cycle during a “fresh-out-of-box” (FOB) state, which accounts for less than 0.04% of the SSD’s life. Although you can manually recreate this condition with a secure erase, the cost is an additional write cycle, which defeats the purpose. Also keep in mind that the GC efficiency and associated wear leveling algorithms can affect WA (more efficient = lower WA).

The other major contributor to WA is the organization of the free space (how data is written to the flash). When data is written randomly, the eventual replacement data will also likely come in randomly, so some pages of a block will be replaced (made invalid) and others will still be good (valid). During GC, valid data in blocks like this needs to be rewritten to new blocks. This produces another write to the flash for each valid page, causing write amplification.

With sequential writes, generally all the data in the pages of the block becomes invalid at the same time. As a result, no data needs relocating during GC since there is no valid data remaining in the block before it is erased. In this case, there is no amplification, but other things like wear leveling on blocks that don’t change will still eventually produce some write amplification no matter how data is written.

Calculating write amplification
Write Amplification is fundamentally the result of data written to the flash memory divided by data written by the host. In 2008, both Intel and SiliconSystems (acquired by Western Digital) were the first to start talking publically about WA. At that time, the WA of all SSDs was something greater than 1.0. It was not until SandForce introduced the first SSD controller with DuraWrite™ technology in 2009 that WA could fall below 1.0. DuraWrite technology increases the free space mentioned above, but in a way that is unique from other SSD controllers. In part two of my write amplification series, I will explain how DuraWrite technology works.

This three-part series examines some of the details behind write amplification, a key property of all NAND flash-based SSDs that is often misunderstood in the industry.

Part 2: When does an amplifier make things smaller?

Part 3: Hot to measure what can’t be seen

Kent Smith is senior director of marketing for LSI’s Flash Components Division, overseeing all outbound marketing and performance analysis. Prior to LSI... Read more

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