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"The SSD market isn't a democracy. All SSDs are not created equal.
Not even when they have exactly the same memory chips inside."

principles of bad block management in flash SSDs

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - November 26, 2010
This is a non technical introduction to the thinking behind bad block management in flash SSDs - which is just one one of the many vital functions performed by an SSD controller.

A lot of reader emails I get show this concept is not widely understood - even by those who are experienced with hard disk and other storage technologies.

I've learned about this by talking to people in the industry. The exact details and algorithms used are proprietary secrets and sometimes covered by patents. But the principles are the same in all SSDs.

In flash devices 2% to 10% of blocks may be error prone or unusable when the device is new.

And after that data in "good blocks" can later be corrupted by charge leakage, disturbance from writes in adjacent parts of the chip, wear-out and variability in the tolerances of the R/W process in MLC SSDs.

Living with these realities and producing reliable storage devices is part of the black magic of the SSD controller - which uses architecture, data integrity, endurance management and othe tricks to ensure reliability.

The explanation below is based on an email I sent to a reader in November 2010.

Controllers remap every time they write to a block - because they try to even out the total writes done on any physical block.

When they get unacceptable errors from a block it's assigned to a dead pool.

For every type of flash chip and each process stepping and each manufacturer - the SSD designer needs to know the percentage of dead blocks which they are likely to get during the life of the SSD. (Typically using a design life of 5 years.)

Successfully working around these defects also depends on the strength of error coding - and how the blocks are mapped on the solid state disk.

Using a RAID aproach and a population of thousands of flash chips in a rackmount SSD like those made by Violin - gives a higher percentage of blocks which can fail and still leave the SSD usable - because data is striped across blocks.

On the other hand - in consumer SSDs with less chips and lower capacity - the striping options are more limited.

The design process results in a bad block budget - for example 4% to 10% - of dead blocks which the SSD can find and yet still operate. Bad blocks are mapped as "do not use". And known good blocks substituted instead. This budget (which is due to media defects) is in addition to the budget which is calculated for attrition of blocks due to wear-out.

The percentage of bad blocks which can be accomodated is a product marketing decision. The spare blocks come from over provisioning inside the SSD and using capacity which is invisible to the host.

If the bad blocks exceed the budgeted number for any reason- the SSD fails.

In the SSD market one of the reasons that some SSDs may have failed early was that SSD designers - who knew too little about what they were doing - used flash chips from other sources than those qualified by the controller manufacturer. That threw away the built in safety margin. Another problem can arise when the original flash chip manufacturer changes something in their process - which doesn't affect the parameters they are testing for - but does change the way the devices look from the data integrity point of view. That too - can tip the balance outside the margins designed into the controller.

Another risk of SSD failures comes from virgin SSD designers who don't know enough about the variance of parameters in the flash chip population. If they choose the bad block budget numbers based on too small a sample - and don't allow enough margin - the controller runs out of spare blocks to assign and dies.

SSDs are only as good as the people who design them and make them. There can be orders of magnitude difference in operational outcomes - even when different SSD makers are using exactly the same memory chips.
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Most of what I know about this topic comes from dialogs with SSD companies over a period of many years (2003 to 2013). Special thanks to many individuals in these companies:-

Adtron, M-Systems, SandForce, STEC, Texas Memory Systems, Violin Memory and SiliconSystems

For those who want to read more about bad blocks in flash SSDs - try these articles.

A detailed overview of flash management techniques (pdf) - give an overview of flash media management and how good data integrity is the result of many different overlapping processes.

Bad Block Management in NAND Flash Memories (pdf) - give you some idea of the internal support in flash chips for data integrity. This is the lowest level in a data integrity heirarchy which is mostly managed by the SSD controller.
Surviving SSD sudden power loss
Why should you care what happens in an SSD when the power goes down?

This important design feature - which barely rates a mention in most SSD datasheets and press releases - has a strong impact on SSD data integrity and operational reliability.

This article will help you understand why some SSDs which (work perfectly well in one type of application) might fail in others... even when the changes in the operational environment appear to be negligible.
image shows Megabyte's hot air balloon - click to read the article SSD power down architectures and acharacteristics If you thought endurance was the end of the SSD reliability story - think again. the article

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The frequency of this re-map, the algorithm to find the "least worn" area to which to write and any data swapping capabilities are generally considered proprietary intellectual property of the controller vendor.
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