For decades, hard disk drives (HDDs) have been the go-to technology when it comes to storage, both on personal computers and on servers. However, in recent years, solid state drives (SSDs) have become increasingly popular, and for good reason. SSDs offer many benefits over traditional storage mediums, which have already helped power them to the forefront of the storage industry. And the innovations don’t show any signs of slowing down.
The future of SSDs is the culmination of innovations in its critical components, namely the NAND flash, and the controller.
The NAND flash is the workhorse of an SSD and stores the actual data. It is in turn made up of several blocks of non-volatile memory, which do not require power to store the data. Then there’s a controller, which is the brains of the operation. It’s an embedded processor that contains the firmware to manage the read and write tasks of the SSD.
While you can’t have an SSD without these two components, some drives also have another optional component -- DDR cache memory. This essentially helps further boost the write speed of the SSD.
SSD manufacturers like Samsung tinker with these three essential ingredients to cook up all sorts of SSDs that suit all kinds of consumers and their varied use cases.
Flash with a bang
Most storage devices must adhere to a standard form factor. The 2.5” has long been the mainstay for getting drives to fit in standard desktop or laptop PC cases. So it is the form factor that limits the physical area and in turn the number of flash memory chips that manufacturers can fit in, which in turn govern the capacity of the drive.
The obvious solution to this packaging dilemma is to increase data density by stuffing more bytes into the same surface area. When SSD vendors tried to increase storage by stuffing NAND memory cells closer together, they discovered that flash memory starts to lose its reliability when the cells are packed too close together.
That’s when Samsung came out with the 850 Series. What was different about these drives was that they stacked storage cells on top of each other in layers. The company leveraged that groundbreaking advancement to expand its high-capacity SSD offerings, which established 3D V-NAND as the standard for Samsung’s consumer SSDs.
V-NAND is the most important SSD innovation of the last decade. With cells stacked vertically, SSDs not only had much higher storage density, but also lowered power consumption, while boosting performance, at the same time.
NAND flash's big strength is its flexibility, which is why you can find it in everything from USB flash drives and smartphones to SSDs. Also, unlike traditional HDDs that need a certain configuration of platters and reading heads is required, flash drives come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
Thanks to advancements in V-NAND, there are also signs that SSDs may be overtaking hard disks when it comes to how much data you can fit in a certain-sized box. For a long time SSDs had significantly less capacity than hard disks, and made up for this with their increased performance. This rule no longer applies thanks to SSDs like the Samsung 860 QVO that offer storage capacities of up to 4TB.
In the near term, it is fair to expect higher capacity SSDs to become more prevalent. Technologies like V-NAND will continue to speed up market acceptance of higher SSD densities. Further improvements in the technology will greatly increase SSD capacities along with their performance, and reliability.
Add to this the fact that the cost per gigabyte for SSDs as compared to traditional hard drives is on a constant downfall. It will further decrease as the adoption rate and market share for SSDs rises in the near future.
Not just the hardware
There’s more to a good SSD than just hardware. Firmware inside an SSD also plays a crucial role in its functionality. Think of firmware as the software that brains of the SSD that essentially performs two crucial functions.
For starters it enables the SSD to interact with the other peripherals in the computer. More importantly, it is the job of the firmware to instruct the SSD controller how and where to write the actual data on the NAND flash.
Manufacturers like Samsung are constantly working to optimise their firmware in an effort to enable it to store the data inside the SSD more efficiently. The firmware plays an important role by streamlining essential SSD tasks like garbage collection, that help make best use of available storage space.
One of Samsung’s recent innovations in SSD software is the fail-in-place (FIP) technology. When something goes wrong with one or more of the NAND chips inside an SSD, instead of the whole disk just dying, FIP ensures that what's left of the functioning storage chips will continue to work. Sure, the SSD will now have less storage space, but at least it’ll continue functioning. And that’s not all. FIP proactively scans for any damage in the data before it relocates it to the remaining NAND chips that are still functional.
FIP is a major achievement that will help ensure the longevity of the SSDs. For now, the FIP technology is available only on SSDs meant for use in data centers. As Samsung continues to refine the FIP technology, you can expect the data integrity and reliability of SSDs to improve considerably over the next few years.
When SSDs were first introduced, they operated over the existing SATA protocol, which prevented them from operating at their full potential. Then came the PCIe interface that was especially designed for connecting high-speed components like graphics cards and SSDs.
The latest in PCIe SSDs these days is the use of non-volatile memory host controller interface specification (NVMe). NVMe is a communications protocol for high speed storage systems that runs on top of PCIe. It enables the hardware and new-generation of compute intensive applications to fully exploit the performance of SSDs.
One of the most important innovations in the SSD form-factor is the BGA (Ball Grid Array) SSD, that’s about 100 times smaller than a 2.5” SSD.
The stamp-sized BGA devices are directly soldered to the motherboard. In fact, BGA devices use their miniscule size to offset the loss of the opportunity for future upgrades as they can’t be removed. Their small size makes them an ideal for ultra-portable devices where space is at a premium. You can also find them in the class of devices where upgrade potential isn’t as much of a factor as the physical attributes of the device.
Furthermore, BGA SSDs are also incredibly fast. For instance, Samsung's PM971 BGA SSD, that’s available in capacities up to 512GB, can read data at breathtaking speeds of up to 1,500MB/s and write at 900MB/s!
NVMe will continue to expand its reach and will soon become the dominant storage interface for the foreseeable future. At the same time, you can also expect BGA NVMe SSDs to break out on two levels -- they’ll pack in more storage space and also expand their reach to other consumer devices, portables, and wearables.
Samsung all the way
Samsung has been spearheading the SSD market almost since the turn of the century. It was the first company to mass produce a 1Gb NAND flash back in 2002. With the Sens Q30PLUS Samsung Note PC, and the Sens Q1 ultra-mobile PC that were the first PCs to feature 32GB SSDs built-in, it gave everyone a taste of things to come in the future. Samsung then helped SSDs break into the ‘era of the tera’ by mass producing the world’s first V-NAND-based SSD.
The successes are the result of the company pouring billions of dollars on R&D. Add to it the fact that Samsung designs, develops, and manufactures storage devices under one-roof in its vertically integrated production unit. All the key components of an SSD, such as the custom controllers, V-NAND and DRAM, are completely designed in-house. This allows Samsung to deliver fully integrated and optimised products that deliver unmatched performance.
One of the most recent examples of the company’s innovation trickling down to consumer applications, is the Samsung 980 PRO PCIe NVMe M.2 drive. It is designed for tech-savvy users and high-end gamers with support for read and write speeds of up to 7,000MB/s and 5,000MB/s, respectively!
Irrespective of the fact that mobile device manufacturers continue to push cloud storage options, local storage on phones and tablets is still increasing, thanks to advancements in SSD technology. Owing to this trend, SSD sales are expected to continue their sharp increase in the next five years.
Consumer SSDs have gone from 50GB to 4TB in under a decade. Newer SSDs that operate on the PCIe interface and communicate over the NVMe protocol are delivering speeds that can’t be matched by any other class of storage devices. With the continuous development and advancements, SSDs will carry on to revolutionise storage for the consumers on the desktop and beyond, in the years to come.