Solid State Drives … are they reliable?

There’s been a lot of questions about Solid State Drives (SSD), aka Enterprise Flash Drives (EFD) by some vendors. Are they less reliable than our 10K or 15K RPM hard disk drives (HDDs)? I was asked this question in the middle of the stage when I was presenting the topic of Green Storage 3 weeks ago.

Well, the usual answer from the typical techie is … “It depends”.

We all fear the unknown and given the limited knowledge we have about SSDs (they are fairly new in the enterprise storage market), we tend to be drawn more to the negatives than the positives of what SSDs are and what they can be. I, for one, believe that SSDs have more positives and over time, we will grow to accept that this is all part of what the IT evolution. IT has always evolved into something better, stronger, faster, more reliable and so on. As famously quoted by Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm, in the movie Jurassic Park I, “Life finds a way …”, IT will always find a way to be just that.

SSDs are typically categorized into MLCs (multi-level cells) and SLCs (single-level cells). They have typically predictable life expectancy ranging from tens of thousands of writes to more than a million writes per drive. This, by no means, is a measure of reliability of the SSDs versus the HDDs. However, SSD controllers and drives employ various techniques to enhance the durability of the drives. A common method is to balance the I/O accesses to the disk block to adapt the I/O usage patterns which can prolong the lifespan of the disk blocks (and subsequently the drives itself) and also ensure performance of the drive does not lag since the I/O is more “spread-out” in the drive. This is known as “wear-leveling” algorithm.

Most SSDs proposed by enterprise storage vendors are MLCs to meet the market price per IOP/$/GB demand because SLC are definitely more expensive for higher durability. Also MLCs have higher BER (bit-error-rate) and it is known than MLCs have 1 BER per 10,000 writes while SLCs have 1 BER per 100,000 writes.

But the advantage of SSDs clearly outweigh HDDs. Fast access (much lower latency) is one of the main advantages. Higher IOPS is another one. SSDs can provide from several thousand IOPS to more than 1 million IOPS when compared to enterprise HDDs. A typical 7,200 RPM SATA drive has less than 120 IOPS while a 15,000 RPM Fibre Channel or SAS drive ranges from 130-200 IOPS. That IOPS advantage is definitely a vast differentiator when comparing SSDs and HDDs.

We are also seeing both drive-format and card-format SSDs in the market. The drive-format type are typically in the 2.5″ and 3.5″ profile and they tend to fit into enterprise storage systems as “disk drives”. They are known to provide capacity. On the other hand, there are also card-format type of SSDs, that fit into a PCIe card that is inserted into host systems. These tend to address the performance requirement of systems and applications. The well known PCIe vendors are Fusion-IO which is in the high-end performance market and NetApp which peddles the PAM (Performance Access Module) card in its filers. The PAM card has been renamed as FlashCache. Rumour has it that EMC will be coming out with a similar solution soon.

Another to note is that SSDs can be read-biased or write-biased. Most SSDs in the market tend to be more read-biased, published with high read IOPS, not write IOPS. Therefore, we have to be prudent to know what out there. This means that some solution, such as the NetApp FlashCache, is more suitable for heavy-read I/O rather than writes I/O. The FlashCache addresses a large segment of the enterprise market because most applications are heavy on reads than writes.

SSDs have been positioned as Tier 0 layer in the Automated Storage Tiering segment of Enterprise Storage. Vendors such as Dell Compellent, HP 3PAR and also EMC FAST2 position themselves with enhanced tiering techniques to automated LUN and sub-LUN tiering and customers have been lapping up this feature like little puppies.

However, an up-and-coming segment for SSDs usage is positioning the SSDs as extended read or write cache to the existing memory of the systems. NetApp’s Flashcache is a PCIe solution that is basically an extended read cache. An interesting feature of Oracle Solaris ZFS called Hybrid Storage Pool allows the creation of read and write cache using SSDs. The Sun fellas even come up with cool names – ReadZilla and LogZilla – for this Hybrid Storage Pool features.

Basically, I have poured out what I know about SSDs (so far) and I intend to learn more about it. SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) has a Technical Working Group for Solid State Storage. I advise the readers to check it out.

About cfheoh

I am a technology blogger with 20+ years of IT experience. I write heavily on technologies related to storage networking and data management because that is my area of interest and expertise. I introduce technologies with the objectives to get readers to *know the facts*, and use that knowledge to cut through the marketing hypes, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and other fancy stuff. Only then, there will be progress. I am involved in SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) and as of October 2013, I have been appointed as SNIA South Asia & SNIA Malaysia non-voting representation to SNIA Technical Council. I was previously the Chairman of SNIA Malaysia until Dec 2012. As of August 2015, I am returning to NetApp to be the Country Manager of Malaysia & Brunei. Given my present position, I am not obligated to write about my employer and its technology, but I am indeed subjected to Social Media Guidelines of the company. Therefore, I would like to make a disclaimer that what I write is my personal opinion, and mine alone. Therefore, I am responsible for what I say and write and this statement indemnify my employer from any damages.
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