Wrong Flash Storage: 5 main reasons for occurring issues

31/10/2022 by

Over the last decade, NAND Flash storage has become the favorite device to store and access all kinds of data, from video recordings and streaming, personal storage, OS provision, data logging, application acceleration and many more. The innovation rate has increased both speed and storage capacity by multiple factors. The only one thing that has decreased, at least generally speaking, is the reliability. With very short new product introduction cycles of just a few months, the time to fully test and verify the complex functionalities is no longer spent. As a result, immature products reach the market, which later depend on multiple firmware updates in the field to eliminate the issues identified by customer testing.

In most cases this goes unpublished and issues with NAND storage are not shared outside the affected company, unless the damage affects the wider public. Tesla, for example, had to recall 134.000 cars due to early failure of an under dimensioned eMMC in April 2021.

With regard to SSD failure, we need to consider two main aspects: Hardware and Firmware.

The hardware defines the raw bit error rate (percentage of block reads with bit errors before they passed the error correction unit), the data retention of the cells, and the supported temperature range. The firmware needs to manage an equal wear out of the Flash, perform bit error correction, and mitigate temperature data effects and power loss issues.

1) Wrong NAND quality

NAND Flash is a commodity and needs to maintain a low cost per GByte. Many developments (3D NAND, QLC) are mainly driven by this goal. For use in cell phones and personal PCs / laptops, consumer quality of NAND is sufficient. That is not true for more demanding applications like enterprise storage or industrial / networking and communication applications.

The standardization consortium JEDEC has defined two main usage cases and their respective quality requirements:

Client use case: PC user type workload, 8 hrs/day, 40°C, uncorrectable error rate (UBER) < 10-15

Enterprise use case: Data base type workload, 24 hrs/day, 55°C, uncorrectable error rate (UBER) < 10-16

Both 10-15 and 10-16 seem to be extremely low numbers, but the difference means that a client drive will fail 10 times more often than an enterprise drive. With the high throughput of modern SSDs, the probability of an SSD fail is no longer negligible.

The raw bit error rate of today’s NAND Flash is in the range of 10-2 for lower-grade and 10-3 for higher-grade technology. Various levels of error correction reduce the UBER rate to the requested UBER levels. The Flash quality grade and level of error handling has direct impact to the sales price. As a general rule: don’t put a cheap commercial grade SSD in an application that requires a low error rate.

2) Wrong NAND design

3D NAND cells are a highly complex stackup of many layers. Currently some devices have more than 140 layers. The manufacturing requires etching of very thin, yet very deep holes into a sandwich layer of hundreds of polysilicon and silicon oxide depositions. Due to the nature of the etching, the lower part of the hole is much narrower than the upper part, resulting in different electrical properties of the transistors. This makes reading different cells reliably very challenging. Adding temperature changes between read and write adds a dimension of variances.

Not every NAND design is made to deliver sufficiently good data when the temperature changes between write and read. As long as the SSD product resides in a thermally well-controlled system – for example in personal PCs, laptops, servers or handhelds - the temperature variation is too small to cause problems. For industrial or NetCom applications, the requirements for the NAND increase significantly and both the NAND design and the supporting firmware need to support wide temperature fluctuations. A wrong choice of the Flash product can cause multiple problems once the system has to operate under fluctuating temperature conditions.

3) Wrong mechanical stability

Ever heard of thermal-mechanical stress? This happens when temperature fluctuations affect structures that combine elements with different thermal expansion factors, i.e. some parts extend more at the same temperature change than others. An SSD consists of a PCB with soldered down Flash packages, a controller, connector and small passives. All of them behave differently with changing temperatures. Since the packages are soldered to the PCB, the differing expansion causes mechanical stress, which finally leads to broken interconnects.

This damage happens after hundreds to thousands of temperature cycles and may even take years. But it matters a lot when it comes to industrial systems that are in the field for a long time.

Broken Ball to PCB connection due to thermal stress. Cracked PCB top layer due to thermal stress.

Broken Ball to PCB connection due to thermal stress.

Cracked PCB top layer due to thermal stress.

4) Power fail robustness

For a laptop that always shuts down gracefully, power fail robustness is no issue. For a medical device, that is simply unplugged, or a NetCom router in an environment with an unstable power supply, sudden power loss must not lead to a broken system. A sudden loss of power supply can occur at any time, during an external write to the SSD, during internal garbage collection, during firmware updates, even during recovery from a previous power loss. If the firmware does not manage power loss correctly, a more or less severe loss of data can be the result. Best case, it is only the last written data (data on the fly), worst case, the firmware is corrupt and the SSD no longer works. In many mission critical applications, losing even few bits of data is simply not acceptable.

Swissbit has tested commonly available SSDs in the market and has seen all types of failures happen under power off tests.

5) Wrong firmware architecture

Speed matters, at least for consumer drives. In addition, speed tests are usually performed when the drives are new, empty and freshly formatted. What is often not considered is how much performance remains when the drive is 100% full, many times overwritten, or maybe running at high temperatures. Many of the existing firmware architectures focus on performance specifications, but not on highest endurance or retention or sustained performance over the complete operation range.

Choosing an SSD that is not optimized for long term use may lead to bad surprises once the early life of the drive has passed.

Moderate throttling of write data rate at high ambient temperature.

Moderate throttling of write data rate at high ambient temperature.

The solution

Swissbit SSDs and NAND Flash products protect against all of the above issues. The selection of the right components, the mechanical construction, the firmware architecture, and power fail robustness makes each Swissbit drive a trustworthy, reliable device to store and retrieve data for a long lifetime.