MLC Flash Performance on the Rise

Arthur Cole
Slide Show

Five SSD Predictions for 2012

The real impact of solid-state drives will be felt the second half of this year.

When it comes to deploying solid-state storage in the enterprise, the rule of thumb is that multi-level cell (MLC) technology offers high capacity at lower cost but single-level cell (SLC) is faster and more durable.

Enterprises have embraced both technologies, but in different ways. MLC usually finds its way into the storage array where it makes effective replacement high-speed magnetic disks that are usually short-stroked, while SLC is most common in server-side cache configurations.

Of late, however, developments in MLC and related support technologies have improved some of the technology's critical weaknesses, enabling both higher endurance and bringing costs ever-closer parity to hard disks.

SMART Storage Systems, for instance, recently released the CloudSpeed 500 drive, an MLC device with a 6 Gbps Serial ATA (SATA) interface that the company says allows more efficient use of consumer-grade Flash technology in enterprise settings. It does this through a proprietary feature set called the Guardian Technology Platform that delivers a five-fold increase in endurance and, consequently, a reduction in SSD refresh rates. The drive is available in 60 to 480 GB versions and can deliver up to 500 MBps of sustained read/write and 60K/20K random read/write IOPS.

At OCZ, the focus is on maximizing speed and longevity to broaden MLC's reach into mission-critical environments. The new Vertex 4 SATA III series sports the new Indilinx Everest 2 controller platform capable of 535 MBps sequential performance and up to 120,000 IOPS random, even in environments that don't favor data compression. At the same time, the platform supports advanced error correction code (ECC), dynamic wear-leveling and the company's Ndurance Flash management system that helps push even commodity Flash technologies well past their recommended life spans.

Enterprises may also start to take a look at MLC in server-side environments following developments like Intel's new 910 PCIe adapter. The device utilizes high-endurance 25 nm MLC NAND Flash capable of 10 full-capacity writes per day for five years. The drive comes in 400 GB or 800 GB versions, the latter capable of 2 GBps sequential reads and 1 Gbps sequential writes, as well as a PCIe-to-SAS bridge that can provide full duplex communications to all three Flash boards on the module.

It seems that the only thing that can spoil the party for MLC is a new Flash technology that delivers equal or near-equal performance at less cost. Enter triple-level cell (TCL) technology, which is already making its presence known in smartphone and tablet circles. Systems like DensBits' DB3610 are providing a compelling alternative to MLC due to its 10K program/erase cycle capability and 95/65 MBps sequential read/write performance. And since data density is bumped up from MLC's 2 bits per cell to 3, the drive costs about 30 percent less. DensBits is already looking to repurpose the drive for enterprise-level applications.

In all likelihood, most enterprises will employ a mix of SLC, MLC and TLC Flash in their server/storage infrastructure as the needs of Big Data, online transaction processing and other burgeoning applications increase. It's important to note, however, that these new solid-state tiers are not intended to replace storage resources that are currently serving traditional enterprise applications, but to accommodate the needs of future cloud and mobile services.

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