SSD flash drives enter the enterprise

By Ray Lucchesi

Until recently, the idea of using solid-state disk (SSD) flash drives in an enterprise storage subsystem would have been deemed ludicrous. However, recent trends in NAND technology have made SSDs more viable in the enterprise storage market. The technology has become economical enough to favorably compare to traditional disk drives—at least in a price-performance context. In addition, many seemingly insurmountable shortcomings have been resolved.

Many disk array vendors, including EMC and Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), are adding SSDs to their disk systems. This technology could radically change the IT storage marketplace and seems ripe to do so.

Why SSD drives?

Flash-based SSD devices have a number of characteristics that are advantageous in enterprise storage applications, but perhaps most important is random read speed.

In the past, applications that read data randomly often resorted to drive short stroking to gain significant performance advantages. In fact, with striping and short stroking of 10 high-end 15,000rpm hard disk drives performance gains of more than 16× are attainable, resulting in more than 3,000 random reads per second.

SSD flash drives can improve random read performance even more significantly. For example, one SSD drive can attain anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 random reads per second; 10 SSD devices could easily handle 50,000 to 200,000 random reads per second. SSD drives are able to achieve their superior random read performance because they have almost no seek time and absolutely no rotational time reading NAND data.

Similar intrinsic technology advantages also afford SSDs a slight advantage during sequential read activity. However, the performance advantage is not as significant—e.g., about 250MBps for SSDs versus about 160MBps for 15,000rpm hard drives.

Another advantage of SSD flash drives is their efficient power consumption. Comparing an active enterprise-class hard disk to an active SSD drive, the SSD drive uses only one-half to one-third the power needed by a typical 15,000rpm disk drive. Thus, replacing 10 hard drives with one SSD drive could result in considerable power, cooling, and space savings.

Who benefits from SSDs?

Obviously, enterprises needing superior random read performance will benefit most from SSD flash drives. Many vendors have specialized performance monitoring software and/or services to determine this requirement. Woody Hutsell, Texas Memory Systems’ executive vice president, says that most customers looking at SSD technology usually have a good intuitive sense of their needs and can quantitatively support this intuition in a straightforward manner.

Data-warehousing applications with numerous random read operations are a natural fit for SSD flash (sometimes referred to as SSDf) devices. For example, data analytics analyzing customer purchase records, stock transaction history, and/or options data primarily do random reads. Many other applications can also benefit from SSD drives.

NAND workarounds

“Flash devices are asymmetric media,” says David Flynn, chief technology officer at FusionIO. Simply stated, SSD flash drives can read blazingly fast but write excruciatingly slow. Writing NAND data first requires a NAND block erasure then a NAND page-programming (write) pass, both of which take a relatively long time. For example, one SSD drive has specifications of 130 random writes per second and 18,000 random reads per second, enabling the drive only to maintain a random write rate less than 1% of its read rate. In contrast, hard disk drives can typically maintain write rates close to 90% of their read rates.

As such, SSD write throughput and random write IOPS rate are major issues. To provide faster write throughput, most SSD vendors add parallelism in the write data path so that multiple NAND dies are written in parallel. However, data path parallelism doesn’t help the random write rate. For this issue, many SSD vendors also provide a DRAM cache in the drive itself, which caches random write data and later de-stages this data sequentially to the NAND memory. But a write cache is no panacea. The cache must be large enough to smooth out random write activity, must support high data integrity by being ECC- or parity-protected, and must be able to be flushed to NAND for power failures.

Another problem with NAND is wear out. NAND technology can support only so many erase-program (write) passes before it fails—a condition typically referred to as the NAND write endurance problem.

NAND comes in two technologies—single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level cell (MLC). SLC typically supports up to 100,000 erase-program operations before failure, while MLC NAND supports only a fraction of SLC write cycles. As such, enterprise SSD drive vendors use SLC NAND and support wear leveling. With wear leveling, an SSD flash drive supports an onboard virtual memory/log structured file scheme and SSD block data is written to a physical NAND location having only minimal wear. In this way, write activity can be spread across all the NAND data cells in the drive, and thereby mitigate NAND’s write-endurance problem.

Samsung and Sun recently announced SLC NAND that supports 500,000 write cycles before cell failure. These new SLC parts were discovered by selectively sampling chips to find ones that support a higher write endurance. It’s noteworthy that these results were accomplished without any NAND technology changes and provide hope for future NAND technology offerings.

In combination with wear leveling, many drive vendors also reduce NAND’s write-endurance issues by over-provisioning their SSD flash drives (i.e., supplying more NAND flash capacity in the SSD drive than its rated capacity). Obviously, write endurance is less of a critical issue with significant over-provisioning. With SSD over- provisioning, additional sparsely populated NAND blocks can be identified and re-written elsewhere in an efficient manner. Such background “garbage collection” benefits write performance by providing a fresh, empty NAND block to support write activity.

However, SSD wear leveling and write parallelism, while improving write-endurance and performance issues, cause yet another challenge: For every data byte written to an SSD flash drive more than one data byte is written to NAND flash. Intel calls this effect write amplification and wear leveling efficiency. For some SSD flash devices, these two factors can more than triple the data written to the NAND flash on the SSD drive. Of course, more over-provisioning can help mask this issue.

Even though wear leveling may result in writing more data than necessary, it can mitigate another troublesome, but lesser known, issue of NAND storage. Specifically, NAND memory can be negatively impacted by read and program (write) disturbs arising from over accessing a particular NAND location. This overuse of NAND locations causes bits within the NAND block to erroneously change values. Wear leveling, by redirecting SSD writes to lesser-used NAND locations, thus reduces the potential for program or write disturbs.

Another technology offered by many SSD vendors to combat read-and-write disturbs is sophisticated multi-bit error correction codes (ECC) such as 6-bit correction/8-bit detection ECC. Combined with error recovery procedures that refresh or move data from deteriorating NAND blocks, the read-and-write disturb issues of NAND storage appear controllable.

Finally, another issue surrounding SSD flash drives is cost. On the street, enterprise SSD drives cost anywhere from 10× to 30× more than comparable enterprise hard drives on a $/gigabyte basis. However, this cost differential can be justified given the elimination of 10 to 30 short-stroked hard drives.

“Most IT shops will use SSD devices for transient data that needs to be read very quickly,” says Claus Mikkelsen, chief scientist at HDS. “For example, stock analysts who took five hours to make buy/sell decisions can now make these decisions in minutes with SSD devices.”

But why only transient data? The answer requires a more discriminating look at NAND technology. NAND uses high voltage (20V) to perform program/write operations and occasionally this high voltage shorts out a NAND die, resulting in a catastrophic write short. One NAND die is about 8Gb, or 1GB, of data and losing this much data is similar to losing a disk drive.

One drive vender determined that some manufacturers’ NAND chips had a catastrophic write short rate of 4% defects per million (DPM) dies per year. At that rate, a NAND die has an MTBF of approximately 219,000 hours. However, each 128GB SSD flash drive typically has 200 8Gb NAND dies and thus is expected to experience a die failure approximately every 45 days. Even at a 2% DPM failure rate, SSD drives using these NAND chips are expected to experience a chip failure every 90 days. In contrast, an enterprise-class hard drive has an MTBF rating of approximately 2 million hours, or 0.4% DPM, resulting in an expected failure only after 220 years of operation. As such, SSD flash drives have only a fraction of the reliability of hard drives.

RAID technology at either the SSD drive or die level could provide protection in handling catastrophic write shorts. However, this subsystem technology was not meant to accommodate such high DPM rates. RAID 5 works best with block—not die—failures. In addition, any RAID-5 array would require at least three active SSD drives, as opposed to one, to provide the storage necessary to write parity blocks and support block rebuild operations for adequate protection against die failures.

Moreover, with any introduction of a new performance-enhancing technology, the architecture of the entire storage subsystem should be reviewed. Traditionally, the storage performance bottleneck has always been the hard drive. With SSD flash devices, the performance bottleneck has moved upstream. How well system, subsystem, and server vendors adjust to this new reality will dictate SSD performance in the enterprise. For example, placing an SSD flash drive behind a subsystem’s expensive DRAM cache to boost read performance makes little sense as any performance gain from DRAM cache is not significantly greater than that from the SSD drive alone. Also, drive interfaces were not meant for SSD’s fast read rate and can often limit SSD sequential throughput.

Finally, while SLC is the SSD NAND technology of choice, primarily because of its write endurance, MLC technology dominates the NAND market. MLC NAND is found in many consumer devices, such as music players, digital cameras, cell phones, and USB thumb drives. As such, MLC technology represents 90%-95% of the market for NAND flash, but only has one-tenth the write endurance and performance of SLC. Given MLC’s manufacturing dominance, it’s unclear how long SLC NAND can be produced at economical prices. Vendors such as Samsung and Intel-Micron (a partnership) have stated that they are committed to providing SLC NAND technology for the foreseeable future at economical price points, but market forces may dictate otherwise.


The near future of storage subsystem environments may be further complicated by the recent introduction of SSDs into enterprise storage systems. The blazing random read rates of this technology may prove to be overwhelmingly attractive to many storage customers. In fact, SSDs could replace the typical short-stroked disk drives prevalent today, especially with the critical cost differential gap narrowing significantly.

Also making SSD flash drives more attractive to enterprise-class users are the many advances made to resolve, or at least mask, current SLC NAND flash issues through sophisticated and advanced drive controller technology. For example, parallelism and DRAM cache combat write throughput and random write performance issues, and wear leveling and ECC alleviate issues of write endurance and flash disturbs. In addition, vendors have over-provisioned their SSDs to further decrease SSD shortcomings.

NAND reliability problems, on the other hand, have not been adequately addressed. A 4% DPM rate, or even a 2% rate, is a glaring problem. As lithography advances shrink NAND cell geometry even further, this problem may become even more pronounced.

Ultimately, whether SLC and MLC NAND technology will both be available, or just MLC, will be decided by the market. On the other hand, there are other storage technologies emerging from research labs vying for the enterprise storage market. The battle between SSD flash and traditional hard drives may have just begun, but the war for enterprise storage dominance will eventually expand beyond this lone battlefield.

Ray Lucchesi is president of Silverton Consulting (www.silvertonconsulting.com).


TMS combines RAM, flash


By Kevin Komiega
Texas Memory Systems’ most recent SSD product is a RAM-based, non-volatile SSD capable of sustaining up to 600,000 I/Os per second (IOPS), according to the company, and delivering up to 512GB of capacity in a 4U rack-mount chassis.

The new RamSan-440 uses RAID-protected NAND flash memory modules for data backup and is the first system to incorporate Texas Memory’s patented IO2 (Instant-On Input-Output) technology.

The RamSan-440 uses DDR2 (double-data-rate) RAM to deliver 600,000 sustained random IOPS and over 4GBps of sustained random read or write bandwidth, with latency of less than 15 microseconds. The system is available in 256GB and 512GB configurations, and can be SAN-attached or direct-attached through up to eight 4Gbps Fibre Channel ports. Multiple RamSan-440s can be combined to scale performance and capacity.

The RamSan-440 uses RAID-protected flash memory modules to back up the RAM-based data. In Active Backup mode, the device continuously backs up data to the internal redundant flash modules without affecting system performance. The SSD can back up or restore the entire 512GB of data in approximately six minutes.

The company’s IO2 technology improves system availability by making user- or application-requested data instantly accessible after the system is powered on. Woody Hutsell, Texas Memory’s executive VP, says without IO2-type technology a half-terabyte of data could take up to two hours to be available from other RAM SSD products after a power outage. Additionally, the RamSan-440 also uses both IBM ChipKill technology and RAID-protected RAM to protect against chip or board failures.

List price for the 512GB RamSan-440 is approximately $275,000, while the entry-level 256GB model costs about $150,000.

The SSD market is heating up as Tier-1 storage vendors such as EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, and others are shipping or have announced storage arrays with SSDs, but there is still some confusion in the market about where solid state fits in the enterprise.

“The biggest challenge in the industry today is that there is so much noise around SSDs. People hear a lot about solid-state disk, but they often don’t even get down to the pros and cons of RAM versus flash technology,” says Hutsell.

RAM-based storage systems are primarily designed for enterprise applications or, according to Hutsell, any user with the need for speed. “RAM-based systems are suited for low-latency, high-concurrency applications where there can be sudden surges in concurrent access.”

Flash systems are more appropriate for high-capacity applications with random data access patterns, according to Hutsell. He says video-on-demand, data warehousing, and video rendering applications are good fits for flash.


Micron ships SLC NAND SSDs


By Kevin Komiega
Micron Technology recently announced the next generation of its SSD drives for enterprise servers and notebook computing applications.

The new NAND-based drives, the enterprise-class RealSSD P200 and the client-focused RealSSD C200, have been designed to boost read-and-write speeds while reducing system power consumption.

The RealSSD P200 drives range in capacity from 16GB to 128GB and are available in a 2.5-inch form factor. The drives use single-level cell (SLC) NAND technology and a 3Gbps SATA interface with a maximum sequential read-and-write speed of up to 250MBps.

According to Dean Klein, vice president of memory system development at Micron, the enterprise-class P200 SSD is more than 10× faster at accessing transactional data compared to traditional hard disk drives (HDDs). The P200 achieves sub-millisecond latency, while a typical enterprise HDD has an average latency of approximately eight milliseconds.

The P200 also consumes about one-tenth the power of a typical HDD, operating at 2.5 watts in active mode and less than 0.3 watts in idle mode, while HDDs typically consume anywhere between 8 to 28 watts.

The P200 provides wear-leveling capabilities across its high-performance SLC write cycles, offering a mean time between failure (MTBF) rating of approximately two million hours, according to company officials.

Micron is a relatively new entrant in the NAND-based memory market, having spent the past three decades producing DRAM technologies and moving into NAND two years ago via a joint development deal with Intel. Klein says now is the time to bring SSDs to the enterprise.

“SSDs can do more than just boot server blades,” says Klein. “But when you say ‘SSD’ to enterprise customers, their initial mindset isn’t NAND-based storage. They immediately think DRAM-based SSDs, which are prone to reliability issues.”

NAND-based enterprise SSDs, Klein says, are totally different. “NAND memory is non-volatile and its power profile is different than DRAM. With appropriate control, the reliability is there.”

However, while laptops, desktops, and servers can benefit immediately from NAND technologies, Klein is skeptical about applying SSDs to storage arrays.

“Today, enterprise storage arrays that can actually keep up with the performance of SSDs are a rarity. Arrays need to be re-designed and new firmware developed,” says Klein. “The components everyone uses today were not optimized for enterprise storage. They were built for digital cameras, thumb drives, and mp3 players. There is a big opportunity to bring innovation to enterprise storage.”

Micron’s notebook SSD, the RealSSD C200, will be available in 2.5-inch and 1.8-inch form factors. The 2.5-inch C200 will be offered in densities of up to 256GB, while the smaller version will range from 32GB to 128GB. Like the P200, the C200 uses a 3Gbps SATA interface, resulting in read speeds of up to 250MBps and a top write speed of 100MBps.

Micron officials declined to provide specific pricing information for the new SSDs.


IDC benchmarks SSDs


By Kevin Komiega
The recent buzz surrounding flash-based storage and its potential applications in the enterprise has prompted many in the industry to weigh the pros and cons of augmenting or replacing traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) with high-performance solid-state disk (SSD) drives in the data center.

The increased interest in SSDs has also prompted research firm IDC to ramp up its coverage of the market and has resulted in a new benchmarking study in which IDC compared SSDs, HDDs, and hybrid HDDs (H-HDDs) to gauge the real-world I/O performance differences among the three technologies.

Though the study, “Benchmarking Storage Options for PCs: The Results Are In - Exposing the Strengths and Weaknesses of HDDs, SSDs, and Hybrids,” is primarily focused on drive technologies for desktops and laptops, some of its conclusions can be applied to enterprise storage environments.

David Reinsel, group vice president for storage and semiconductors research at IDC, says some results were predictable while others were unexpected.

IDC assumed at the outset that SSDs would outperform HDDs or hybrid drives by a healthy margin, regardless of the test configuration, but some of the results surprised him. “Hard drives have been plug-and-play in the PC environment for a long time. You can take a drive from any disk manufacturer and expect good, predictable performance. However, when you put in an SSD, which is essentially a turbocharger, you should not necessarily expect the same results.”

Reinsel says SSDs generally outperformed HDDs and H-HDDs, but there are bigger issues at play than I/Os per second (IOPS)—namely, the impact that overall system design has on the performance of SSDs.

He says designers need to design systems to take advantage of SSDs. Reinsel believes an “intelligent redesign” of enterprise storage arrays is in order.

According to the study, the key to the success of SSD technology for enterprise applications depends on the controller. Reinsel says storage controller technologies with the ability to manage the NAND memory efficiently will be one of the key differentiators among vendors of single-level cell (SLC) and multi-level-cell (MLC) flash-based SSDs.

Reinsel also says the process of building new enterprise storage arrays capable of taking full advantage of SSDs will be slow and deliberate. “There are products available today and we will see that number increase over time, but they will probably not be available and adopted en masse until 2010,” he says.

Another recent IDC research study, “Worldwide Solid State Drive 2007-2012 Forecast and Analysis: Entering the No-Spin Zone,” shows the worldwide SSD market generated nearly $400 million in revenues in 2007. IDC predicts SSD revenue will increase at a 70% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2007–2012 and unit shipments at a slightly faster rate of 76%.

How much of that growth will be attributed to enterprise storage remains unclear. What is clear is that early adopters will be companies that can afford the SSD premium.

“People want to do it and there are a lot of promises out there, but in reality I don’t think all of the [storage vendors] have the tools in place to do it effectively at this point,” says Reinsel. “There are certain parts of the industry where IOPS mean everything, such as Wall Street transactions, real-time airline reservations—anywhere that more transactions mean more dollars.

“People will start adopting SSDs in the enterprise when they see value in performance improvements. Right now they are paying a large premium and if the systems don’t perform as users expect, there will be some level of disappointment,” Reinsel says.

According to IDC, the test results indicate that traditional HDD technology is going to be around for years to come. However, H-HDD and SSD technologies will experience increased adoption rates as price points decline, technology improves, and use cases evolve.

This article was originally published on September 01, 2008