One Size Does Not Fit All: Designing Drives to Match Workloads

By Sebastien Jean

Chief Technology Officer

Phison Electronics

November 11, 2021

Story

One Size Does Not Fit All: Designing Drives to Match Workloads

In the manufacturing process, engineers typically come up with a design that eventually marketing people will roll out to encourage businesses and end users to adopt into their particular space. This approach seemingly works for those who do not have the means or resources for custom creations that may better suit them. 

For instance, those who need a certain performance level from their SSDs may opt to overprovision to achieve their desired metric. But this is a waste of resources to satisfy one goal. A better process is for manufacturers to create more targeted solutions that satisfy exacting needs of a market.

A typical SATA SSD will feature a number of NAND flash memory chips, maybe some DDR memory, and a controller that interconnects the drive to the computer with built-in firmware to manage the system. How these drives are configured determine the capacity, performance, life expectancy, and cost attributes that are appropriate for various end markets.

Each cell in NAND flash contains bits that can be turned on or off through an electric charge. The more bits turned on, the higher the capacity but a shorter lifespan and slower read/write speeds. Using a single cell means less capacity than drives of physically identical size but with higher speeds and increased durability. Single Level Cell (SLC) flash is typically utilized in enterprise settings while Multi Level Cell (MLC) and Triple Level Cell (TLC) are used in consumer-level products.

Matching the right drive to the right function can be a complicated process. A server farm at a leading pharmaceutical company has different requirements than the flash in a mobile phone or a desktop computer. A consumer-grade SSD is engineered with the appropriate endurance for typical desktop workloads. It’s idle 80 to 90 percent of the time and is tuned to delay its drive maintenance functions until that idle time arrives. Enterprise SSDs are made for environments with racks and racks of storage that need five-nines uptime, 24x 7x 365, and other high-level storage features. For some industries, the difference on what type of flash to deploy for their workloads or environments may not be as clear cut. 

Making a Case for the Makers

One such use-case is digital content creation, such as visual effects, animation, and video game design. Creative tasks often require high-sustained write workloads, which might be better suited for enterprise-level flash, but don’t necessarily require the high-endurance features that come with the price. By engineering a different class of SSD, creative content producers can better meet their needs without breaking the bank.

Recognizing that there was a need in the market that was not being served by either client SSDs or enterprise SSDs, Phison set out to develop a new class of drives for people that use computers and write-intensive applications to make digital stuff. Developing SSDs with the best possible endurance for their application starts with the controller, extends to the firmware, and continues at every step throughout the hardware manufacturing process. Phison optimized their SSD solution for sustained writes and superior endurance like enterprise drives, with reduced complexity and overhead like consumer drives. This SSD uses higher-grade NAND and error-correction techniques based on machine learning algorithms that minimize the tax on SSD endurance.

Maker-class SSD is designed for people who created digital content such as video, photo, audio, special effects; those compiling code for software development purposes; and for cryptocurrency farming like Chia plotting. These workloads require sustained write bandwidth rather than being bursty. Whereas a typical SSD might have sustained writes of 0.8GB/s, Maker-class SSDs can achieve sustained writes of up to 2.5GB/s. In addition to the sustained write speeds, these drives provide higher endurance than client SSDs without the complexity and overhead of enterprise-level drives. Maker-class SSDs can perform as fast as a RAM disc but with up to 30x the endurance of standard SSDs.

Maker-Class SSDs leverage the longer life and speed performance attributes of SLC while overcoming the limitations of TLC performance found in most enterprise-class render farms. Using higher-grade NAND, Maker-Class SSDs increase program/erase cycling, reduce the write amplification factor, and optimizes LDPC through machine learning.  Combined with Phison’s LifeXtension Technology, Maker SSDs offer long-lasting media that improves productivity of those producing video, photo, and audio content. 

At a typical workload of 48 writes/day, the Maker model provides endurance for 250 days of sustained work while the 1 and 2TB Maker PRO models offer 338 and 675 days respectively to provide durability that can outlast the machines they are running in. Typical SSDs will last only 38 days at equal workloads.

Conclusion

Very often in the engineering process, the design of a device is created to suit the limitations of the hardware. A product is developed to some generally acceptable specifications and this design becomes a de facto architecture used across various solutions. This works well when workloads clearly align with the attributes of a product – for example, enterprises deploying SLC drives to give them the speed they need to power their applications or client-level flash that can handle word processing or web browsing when read and write cycles are not as important.

But for those use cases, like digital content creation, these off-the-shelf approaches mean tradeoffs. What kind of increased production can be had if rendering projects took a fraction of the time they do now? How much less frustration is there for a small photography studio to process pictures without timeout errors? How much more cost-effective would it be to deploy a solution that doesn’t require you to purchase a level of flash that provides too much of a good thing?

Good design means designing something for the end user that is appropriate to their needs. By creating a new class of SSD for content creators, we were able to provide creative types with the high endurance and excellent sustained bandwidth that they need without the heavy tax imposed by deploying enterprise-level drives. Designing drives to match the workload is a good design philosophy.

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Accomplished leader for large-scale technology solutions in a multi-billion-dollar global market. As a proven innovator, I am skilled at looking for novel solutions to complex and ambiguous problems. Exceptionally strong talent for building and cultivating trusting relationships across internal and external organizations. Proven ability to engage customers and generate new business opportunities.

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