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Resistive Ram cache to make Flash fly, say boffins

Wham, bam, thank you, RRam

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Cache in hand

In the other direction, the RRam cache is large enough so that data can be held there until there's a sufficient quantity of it to write it out to Flash efficiently.

So quite apart from allowing the drive to appear to operate at RRam rather than Flash speeds, this has the added benefit of organising the data to minimise and possibly eliminate the small, random writes, and the data fragmentation they engender, which are the bugbear of Flash performance and reduce chips' longevity.

The design of Flash chips makes it necessary to write a whole chunk of data - called a Page - of up to 4KB in size even if only a few bytes need to be changed. This is because Flash Pages need to be erased before they can be written to. Worse, Flash has to be erased a Block at a time, and a Block is a much larger amount of memory than a Page, 16KB or bigger. Each erase and write operation gobbles up power.

Caching allows that entire 4KB write to comprise new data. So while 4KB still needs to be written, it does so once rather than every time one part of the page changes.

The Chuo University university designed such a hybrid SSD using 256GB of Flash and 1GB of RRam. The team didn't build such a device, but simulations yielded an 11x increase in write performance - 4.2MB/s for the Flash alone, rising to 46MB/s with the RRam cache in place - and a 79 per cent reduction in the energy consumed for all these writes: 0.12J/MB down to 0.024J/MB.

The team reckon that with smarter, 3D chip construction, connecting the controller, RRam and Flash chips with lines that run through each part - called Through Silicon Vias - the energy saving is even greater, with consumption falling to 0.008J/MB.

Reduced writing means increased longevity: the Flash chips in the Hybrid SSD would last, the team reckons, more than seven times as long as those in a Flash-only SSD. Hybrid drives will cost more, of course, but as long as the extra is less than the price of seven SSDs, that's good news for data centres bulk-buying solid-state drives.

A more logical approach would be to migrate to RRam SSDs, but these are some way off. RRam chips aren't expected to go into mass production until 2014. It will be some years more before they reach today's NAND Flash chip prices.

And the Chuo team's approach applies equally to SSDs with a cache of regular Ram. The downside here, of course, is that Ram loses its data when the power is cut, so the drive needs to be able to hold sufficient energy to write the contents of the Ram cache to Flash as soon as a power cut is detected.

While the Japanese team waits for RRam to become more readily available, companies like Sandforce and Indilinx are building better Flash controllers more able to work around NAND's limitations. But RRam's speed advantage will be hard to beat. ®

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