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What Happens When an SSD Wears Out

What To Expect When Flash Stops Flashing

We all know that SSDs are made up of NAND-Flash memory chips and that flash memory eventually will wear out.  So, to prepare for the inevitable, we offer you a little up front advice on what to expect when your flash stops flashing.

What’s In The Box?

We have posted several blogs in the past about NAND-Flash memory and SSDs so I am not going to get into it too deep here.  Basically, SSDs are made up of NAND-technology flash memory chips.  It is a well known and widely discussed fact that flash memory wears out.  There is a limit to the number of times the flash device can be physically programmed and erased.   Each time a flash cell is erased, some physical damage is done to the cell and over time this wear accumulates and eventually renders the cell non-functional.  SSDs try to manage the wear using wear-leveling techniques.

Flash chips are organized into blocks, each of which contains a number of pages (e.g. a block with 64/128 pages and each page is 4KB/8KB).  For the flash device, a block is the smallest unit that can be erased and a page is the smallest unit that can be written to.  When performing a write operation, the SSD must locate a free page to write to.  If there are no free pages available, the SSD must erase an entire block to write a single page and if there is active data in the block to be erased, the active data must also be written to a new location before the block can be erased.  The process of moving old, valid data to write new data is called garbage collection and the fact that writing to the SSD triggers additional internal writes is called write amplification.  Garbage collection contributes to the wear of the flash memory.

So What Happens When The Flash Can’t Flash

So we know the SSD will eventually have flash wear problems.  Will we notice this in an SSD? The short answer, unfortunately, is yes.  As flash cells wear out, the SSD management software marks them as bad cells and will no longer use them.  New data is mapped to the healthy cells remaining in the SSD.  The pool of bad cells reduces the physical size of the SSD.

SSDs are shipped with an excess of flash vs. amount of stated storage capacity.  This is referred to as over-provisioning.  For example – a 300 GB SSD may physically have 320 GB of flash (7% over provisioning).  SSD are over provisioned to help reduce wear and keep performance high.  As the SSD declares bad cells within the device, the amount cells in the SSD are reduced and hence the % over-provisioning is reduced.  This makes fewer cells available for garbage collection and will slow down the erase/write process reducing SSD performance.

All Those Writes Add Up

The wear inside an SSD is a cumulative process and occurs over time. Typically, the SSD does not die suddenly because of cells wearing out.  Instead, there will be a steady decline in performance.  If an SSD does fail, it also might not be a result of cell failure.  Like any electronic device, there are many failure paths – power supplies, software, CPU issues etc.

Use SSDs Wisely

While SSDs do have known issues, there are vendor-provided tools that indicate the life expectancy of an SSD.  Intel SSD Toolbox and the SMART Command Feature Set by Micron are two examples.  These tools are used to report the hardware information and health status of the device.  These tools are typically vendor specific so if the SSD you are currently using does not have a tool available for it, you may be out of luck, or….instead of using the SSD for primary storage, deploy it as a cache.  When used as cache, SSDs hold a secondary copy of your data, lowering the risk of data loss in the event of a failure.

VeloBit SSD caching software reduces wear and increases durability and life span of by minimizing writes to SSD and compressing data written to SSD.  These techniques minimize garbage collection and optimize data management.

Finally, if you are in the market for new SSD, look at the durability of the SSD you are purchasing. Most of the new enterprise SSDs have made strides at addressing SSD durability.

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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