Solid state drives (SSDs) have become a popular storage technology in computers and other devices over the past decade. Unlike traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) that use magnetic disks to store data, SSDs use flash memory chips to store data digitally. This fundamental difference in storage mediums leads to major differences in performance, durability, size, and other factors.
How SSDs Work
SSDs consist of flash memory chips that retain data even when power is turned off. Flash memory stores data in memory cells made up of floating-gate transistors. These transistors can be electrically charged to store a 1 or 0 bit value. The cells are organized into pages and blocks throughout the flash memory chips.
To write data, the SSD controller sends electrical voltages to charge the flash memory cells to the desired 1 or 0 values. To read data, the controller checks the cell voltages to determine their stored bits. SSDs read data much faster than HDDs because they can access any memory location instantly, without waiting for a spinning disk to rotate into position.
The lack of moving parts also allows SSDs to be more compact and resilient against physical shocks and vibration. However, the flash memory cells have a limited lifespan and will eventually wear out after repeated rewrites. SSD controllers use various techniques like wear leveling to distribute writes across all cells evenly and prolong the lifespan.
Types of Flash Memory in SSDs
There are two main types of flash memory used in SSDs currently:
- NAND flash – The most common type of flash storage. NAND flash memory is made up of NAND gates that connect transistors in a way that resembles a NAND logic gate. It is non-volatile memory, retaining data without power. NAND offers faster writes and erases compared to NOR flash memory.
- NOR flash – An older type of flash memory that offers full address and data buses for random access reads. It is slower than NAND for writes and erases. NOR flash is often used for storing executable boot code since it supports true random access read capabilities similar to RAM.
Within NAND and NOR flash, there are additional storage technologies that differ in architecture, capacity, and performance:
NAND Flash Types
- SLC (single-level cell) – Stores 1 bit per cell. Fastest and most durable NAND flash, but more expensive per gigabyte.
- MLC (multi-level cell) – Stores 2 bits per cell. Slower than SLC but less expensive.
- TLC (triple-level cell) – Stores 3 bits per cell. Slower but even more affordable than MLC.
- QLC (quad-level cell) – Stores 4 bits per cell. Slowest performance with cheapest per gigabyte cost.
NOR Flash Types
- SPI NOR – Connects over the SPI bus interface for embedded systems.
- parallel NOR – Provides wider parallel external bus for faster reads but uses more pins.
Common SSD Form Factors
SSDs come in several physical form factors, connector interfaces, and protocols. Common form factors include:
- 2.5 inch SATA – The most popular SSD form factor, compatible with most laptops and desktops. Connects via the SATA III interface.
- M.2 – Compact, flat form factor that connects directly to a motherboard slot. Available in SATA and PCIe variants.
- U.2 / U.3 (SFF-8639) – Enterprise SSD form factor that connects via PCIe. Provides high performance in a compact form factor.
- Add-in card – Older SSD form factor shaped like a typical PCIe card. Situated parallel to the motherboard.
The protocol and interface used by the SSD impacts its performance capabilities. SATA III SSDs are limited to around 550 MB/s while PCIe 4.0 x4 SSDs can reach speeds over 7000 MB/s. M.2 and U.2 SSDs can be either SATA or PCIe based.
Key SSD Components and Operation
SSDs contain several key internal components that work together to manage the underlying flash memory:
- Controller – The SSD controller manages all operations on the flash memory. It uses a microprocessor to execute the SSD’s firmware that implements algorithms like wear leveling and flash block management.
- Cache – High speed RAM acting as a cache between the flash storage and controller. Helps accelerate read/write operations.
- DRAM – Additional RAM used by the controller for flash media management operations and other tasks.
- NAND flash ICs – The NAND flash memory chips that provide the underlying data storage array.
- Flash translation layer (FTL) – Firmware logic that maps data addresses from the host interface to physical flash locations. This provides abstraction from the raw flash addresses.
- Wear leveling – Firmware logic distribute writes across flash pages evenly to maximize lifespan. This prevents intensive rewrite operations on one cell or block.
- Bad block management -firmware that detects bad flash blocks and remaps them so they are no longer accessible.
- Read scrubbing / data refresh – helps detect and recover from bit errors by periodically scanning and checking data integrity.
- Garbage collection – Recovers unused pages so they can be reused for writing new data. Needed since flash pages have to be erased before rewrite.
- RAID support – Some SSDs support RAID internally through the controller to increase performance, capacity, or redundancy.
These components arm the SSD controller with the intelligence needed to manage data operations across the complex flash storage media reliably and efficiently.
SSD Advantages vs HDDs
SSDs provide major advantages over hard disk drives:
- Faster load times – SSDs can access data instantly without seek time delays, providing faster boot and game level load times.
- Faster file transfers and saves – The lack of moving parts allows SSDs to read and write data much faster than HDDs.
- More durable – With no moving platters or heads, SSDs are more resistant to shock, vibration, and movement during operation.
- Lower power draw – SSDs consume less power than HDDs, extending battery life in laptops.
- Compact and lightweight – 2.5″ SSDs weight around 1.5 ounces. 3.5″ HDDs weigh over 1 pound.
- Silent – SSDs make no mechanical noises during operation unlike HDDs.
- Better responsiveness – Lower latency and faster random reads provide a snappier feel when accessing files.
However, HDDs still excel in other areas like sequential read/write throughput and storage capacity per dollar. The strengths of both storage mediums can be combined by using an SSD as the primary drive for performance combined with an HDD for larger data storage.
SSDs utilize NAND flash memory chips to store data digitally in memory cells. This provides faster access, greater durability, lower power draw, and other advantages compared to traditional HDDs. However, flash memory has a finite lifespan and requires advanced features like wear leveling and garbage collection to operate reliably. Overall, SSDs are becoming the preferred storage technology for consumer and business computing applications demanding high performance and responsiveness.