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How Enterprise and Consumer SSDs Are Different

At Velobit, we are lucky to be in the position to talk to many experienced SSD users to discuss real world issues with SSD integration and operation. We have just as many conversations with some not so experienced folks who are just beginning the investigation/search/selection process for SSD solutions. A topic that comes up frequently has to do with the cost difference between enterprise and consumer SSDs which we typically answer by discussing the differences between the two products. We will start with the basic cost question and work our way into the details from there.

Enterprise SSD and Consumer SSD Price Point

When I first started writing this blog, I thought it was going to be easy to differentiate these two categories by just going to a favorite vendor like newegg and get a few simple examples to show that enterprise SSDs and consumer SSDs can be defined simply by price. Well I was wrong about that. newegg.com actually has a category called ‘Enterprise SSD’ with 21 items in it. The list includes SAS, SATA and PCI-E SSDs ranging from $11.50/GB to $2/GB. newegg also has a category called ‘Internal SSD’ with 377 items (377 items! No wonder people are confused). This list also has different interface options and prices ranging from $4/GB down to less than $.60/GB.

So the categories are not easily defined just by price. With all the product options available, it is no wonder why we are frequently asked what the difference is between enterprise and consumer SSDs and why should you have to the spend extra money to get an enterprise SSD.

Thinking Inside The Box

We will have to go inside an SSD to discuss what the differences actually are in SSD products. Figure 1 shows a simplified block diagram of an SSD showing the internal components we need to discuss:
· CPU and SSD controller firmware
· Flash memory type and over-provisioning
· RAM
· Power supply (and backup)

SSD Controller Firmware

Every SSD has a processor inside which manages the device. The program the CPU runs is contained in the firmware shipped with the SSD. The right firmware can make all the difference in SSD performance. There are a limited number of flash memory vendors and lots of SSD vendors. One way to differentiate product performance is in the firmware algorithms that control the write access to the flash. For example, we tested an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD with firmware version 1.3 and 1.5 to see what difference upgrading to the newer firmware version would make. We found that (see OCZ Vertex 4 low performance with firmware 1.3) the newer firmware actually boosted performance up to 500% for some tests.

How do you see the impact of firmware when buying enterprise vs. consumer SSDs? Consumer grade SSD firmware tends to be optimized for a ‘read’ heavy workload. Enterprise grade SSD firmware is optimized for the mixed read/write environment of a typical IT application. Thus the consumer firmware performance is not optimal for enterprise and therefore, consumer SSDs are not really intended for enterprise use.


Figure 1. Simplified SSD Block Diagram
Source: http://www.csee.umbc.edu/~squire/images/ssd1.pdf

Flash Memory Type and Over-provisioning

There are 2 different types of flash memory available from chip vendors: Single-Level Cell (SLC) and Multi-Level Cell (MLC). Tons of stuff has been written about these topics so we will just keep it at a high level here. Basically, SLC is faster, uses less power and can handle more write cycles than MLC. MLC is cheaper and has higher data density. Does SLC or MLC define an enterprise SSD vs. consumer SSD? No, again, it is not that simple, although all consumer SSDs are MLC. Many enterprise SSDs use MLC technology and through their firmware, they manage the write cycle problem.

The amount of flash installed in an SSD does differ between enterprise and consumer devices. This is referred to as “over-provisioning”. Simply stated, this means is that the SSD contains more physical flash memory than is stated in the SSD specification. For example, an SSD with 128 GB of physical flash can be specified as either a 100 or 120 GB SSD (28% and 7% over-provisioned, respectively). This is done to help reduce wear on the flash memory chips themselves making the SSD last longer. So, an enterprise SSD may be specified as smaller size resulting in higher $/GB.

There is a second level of over-provisioning that is typically a user setting when formatting the SSD. Users can decide to set aside a percentage (e.g. 20%) of the specified space for over-provisioning as a trade-off between reduced storage capacity and increased endurance and performance. That can typically be done for either enterprise or consumer SSD.

On Board RAM

SSDs typically use RAM cache to manage the data flow to/from the flash devices. The size of the RAM on the SSD varies from 16 MB on the low end consumer SSDs to up to 1GB on the newest enterprise SSD. More RAM costs more but produces higher performance SSDs.

Power Supply

Because RAM is used for SSD data management data loss can occur in the event of a system-wide power loss. Robust SSD power supply design is important for data preservation. Enterprise SSDs can have large capacitors and battery backup built into their power supplies to preserve data. Consumer-grade SSDs do not have the same level of data loss prevention as enterprise devices.

Conclusion

It is understandable why there is so much confusion regarding consumer and enterprise SSDs. Basically, enterprise SSDs are designed to perform better, last longer and be more reliable for critical data operations. These added benefits results in enterprise SSDs costing more than consumer grade devices. Is it worth the extra money to buy an enterprise SSD? That is a difficult question to generalize upon, but I would have to say that extra benefits of using an enterprise SSD have significant value and if you can afford one, get one. While a consumer grade SSD will still provide you with significant performance benefits, its lower durability make it unsuitable for the data center. Deploying the SSD as a cache is most efficient and effective way to use this valuable asset and will almost always guarantee you the best price/performance.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Peter Velikin

Peter Velikin has 12 years of experience creating new markets and commercializing products in multiple high tech industries. Prior to VeloBit, he was VP Marketing at Zmags, a SaaS-based digital content platform for e-commerce and mobile devices, where he managed all aspects of marketing, product management, and business development. Prior to that, Peter was Director of Product and Market Strategy at PTC, responsible for PTC’s publishing, content management, and services solutions. Prior to PTC, Peter was at EMC Corporation, where he held roles in product management, business development, and engineering program management.

Peter has an MS in Electrical Engineering from Boston University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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