Understanding Flash: SLC, MLC and TLC

slc-mlc-tlc-fruitmachine

The last post in this series discussed the layout of NAND flash memory chips and the way in which cells can be read and written (programmed) at the page level but have to be erased at the (larger) block level. I finished by mentioning that erase operations take substantially longer than read or program operations… but just how big is the difference?

Knowing the answer to this involves first understanding the different types of flash memory available: SLC, MLC and TLC.

Electrons In A Bucket?

Whenever I’ve seen anyone attempt to explain this in the past, they have almost always resorted to drawing a picture of electrons or charge filling up a bucket. This is a terrible analogy and causes anyone with a deep understanding of physics to cringe in horror. Luckily, I don’t have a deep understanding of physics, so I’m going to go right along with the herd and get my bucket out.

A NAND flash cell, i.e. the thing that stores a value of one or zero, is actually a floating gate transistor. Programming the cell means putting electrons into the floating gate, causing it to become (negatively) charged. Erasing the cell means removing the electrons from the floating gate, draining the charge. The amount of charge contained in the floating gate can be varied from zero up to a maximum value – this is an analogue system so there is no simple FULL or EMPTY state.

Because of this, the amount of charge can be measured and thresholds assigned to indicate a binary value. What does that mean? It means that, in the case of Single Level Cell (SLC) flash anything below 50% of charge can be considered to be a bit with a value of 1, while anything above 50% can be considered a bit with a value of 0.

But if i decided to be a bit more careful in the way I fill or empty my bucket of charge (sorry), I could perhaps define more thresholds and thus hold two bits of data instead of one. I could say that below 25% is 11, from 25% to 50% is 10, from 50% to 75% is 01 and above 75% is 00. Now I can keep twice as much data in the same bucket. This is in fact Multi Level Cell (MLC). And as the picture shows, if I was really careful in the way I treated my bucket, I could even keep three bits of data in there, which is what happens in Three Level Cell (TLC):

slc-mlc-tlc-buckets

The thing is, imagine this was a bucket of water (comparing electrons to water is probably the last straw for anyone reading this who has a degree in physics, so I bid you farewell at this point). If you were to fill up your bucket using the SLC method, you could be pretty slap-dash about it. I mean it’s pretty obvious when the bucket is more than half full or empty. But if you were using a more fine-grained method such as MLC or TLC you would need to fill / empty very carefully and take exact measurements, which means the act of filling (programming) would be a lot slower.

To really stretch this analogy to breaking point, imagine that every time you fill your bucket it gets slightly damaged, causing it to leak. In the SLC world, even a number of small leaks would not be a big deal. But in the MLC or (especially) the TLC world, those leaks mean it would quickly become impossible to keep using your bucket, because the tolerance between different bit values is so small. For similar reasons, NAND flash endurance is greatly influenced by the type of cell used. Storing more bits per cell means a lower tolerance for errors, which in turn means that higher error rates are experienced and endurance (the number of program/erase cycles that can be sustained) is lower.

Timing and Wear

Enough of the analogies, let’s look at some proper data. The chart below uses sample figures from AnandTech:

slc-mlc-tlc-performance-chart

You can see that as the number of bits per cell increases, so does the time taken to perform read, program (i.e. write) and erase operations. Erases in particular are especially slow, with values measured in milliseconds instead of microseconds. Given that erases also affect larger areas of flash than reads and programs, you can start to see why the management of erase operations on flash is critical to performance.

Also apparent on the chart above is the massive difference in the number of program / erase cycles between the different flash types: for SLC we’re talking about orders of magnitude in difference. But of course SLC can only store one bit per cell, which means it’s much more expensive from a capacity perspective than MLC. TLC, meanwhile, offers the potential for great value for money, but none of the performance requirements you would need for tier one storage (although it may well have a place in the world of backups). It is for this reason that MLC is the most commonly used type of flash in enterprise storage systems. (By the way I’m so utterly disinterested in the phenomena of “eMLC” that I’m not going to cover it here, but you can read this and this if you want to know more on the subject…)

Warning: Know Your Flash

cautionOne final thing. When you buy an SSD, a PCIe flash card or, in the case of Violin Memory, an all-flash array you tend to choose between SLC and MLC. As a very rough rule of thumb you can consider MLC to be twice the capacity for half the performance of SLC, although this in fact varies depending on many factors. However there are some all flash array vendors who use both SLC and MLC in a sort of tiered approach. That’s fine -and if you are buying a flash array I’m sure you’ll take the time to understand how it works.

But here’s the thing. At least one of these vendors insists on describing the SLC layer as “NVRAM” to differentiate from the MLC layer which it simply describes as using flash SSDs. The truth is that the NVRAM is also just a bunch of flash SSDs, except they are SLC instead of MLC. I’m not in favour of using educational posts to criticise competitors, but in the interest of bring clarity to this subject I will say this: I think this is a marketing exercise which deliberately adds confusion to try and make the design sound more exciting. “Ooooh, NVRAM that sounds like something I ought to have in my flash array…” – or am I being too cynical?

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