The storage industry is getting exciting again. In order to increase capacity of NAND SSDs, there are two different routes being taken: either increase the number of bits per cell from 3bpc (TLC) to 4bpc (QLC) for a 33% increase, or increase the number of TLC layers per chip from 64 layers to 96 layers for a 50% increase. Each method has benefits and issues, however we have been waiting for the two technologies to actually be found on upcoming drives (rather than just on a press release). As part of the show we found a 4 TB SATA-based drive using a Maxio Technology controller and Intel's latest QLC NAND flash. We also scored some data on the speeds, as well as the state of play of the technologies.

A Prototype 4TB Intel QLC SSD

Intel and Micron are currently shipping 3D QLC NAND-based SSDs to enterprise customers who may intend to use them for WORM (write-once read many) applications or as HDD replacements. While it was obvious that this type of flash memory will eventually find its way to consumer applications at some point, it looks like this will happen earlier than expected. Maxio Technology, a developer of SSD controllers, demonstrated a prototype of its SSD featuring Intel’s 3D QLC NAND memory.

Maxio’s prototype drive is based on the MAS0902A-B2C DRAM-less controller as well as Intel’s N18A 3D QLC memory. The controller features two processing cores and supports a number of Maxio’s proprietary technologies, including AgileECC 2, WriteBooster 2 (SLC caching), Virtual Parity Recovery, and so on. This controller is apparently one of the smallest around, as Maxio stated that it is built on GlobalFoundries' 40 nm process.

UPDATE 6/15: Maxio contacted us to correct its initial statement regarding the manufacturing technology used to make its controller. The company uses GlobalFoundries' planar 40 nm fabrication process to make the MAS0902A chip.

It is noteworthy that while Intel/Micron mentioned that their QLC NAND memory can handle around 1000 program/erase cycles, Maxio states that with its controller this number may not be that high. Maxio was keen to point out that this is a prototype drive using early memory, and it expects that the final version of the NAND to be a lot higher.

A side note about QLC: with more voltage levels per cell, it can be more difficult to read a cell due to voltage drift, and error correcting algorithms are in place to reduce signal bit errors caused by drift. When using cells that contain a higher number of bits, these algorithms have to work hardware to ensure data integrity, which can lead to higher power consumption or more transistors being needed in the controller. It can also have a knock on affect of reducing overall P/E cycles of the memory, which in part could be why this demo was not rated at the full 1000 cycles right now.

The current P/E rating, which may be good enough for high-capacity consumer SSDs where 0.3 DWPD is a typical rating for inexpensive SATA drives with 3D TLC NAND, may not be good enough for applications that require more writes (though, this is not a problem for WORM). Meanwhile, as Maxio and other developers of controllers are learning more about QLC, the endurance rating of memory with their controllers will increase.

From performance point of view, the 4 TB 3D QLC SATA SSD is on par with drives based on various types of 3D TLC NAND, which is not particularly surprising as modern SATA SSDs reach SATA limitations. When it comes to actual numbers, the SSD provides up to 562 MB/s sequential read speed and up to 530 MB/s sequential write speed. Meanwhile, for those who need higher performance, there is the MAS0901 controller that supports DRAM.

The 4 TB drive that Maxio is demonstrating is essentially a 2.5-inch PCB containing four multi-layer NAND memory packages that still feature an ES (engineering sample) status, so it is not like Maxio can ship this design straightaway. Anyhow, 4 TB of NAND in just four packages certainly look impressive.

Maxio sells turnkey SSD solutions, but not complete drives. Therefore, the company cannot make statements regarding retail availability of SSDs based on Intel’s N18A 3D QLC NAND memory and the MAS902A controller. In fact, it is not even completely clear how an SSD supplier would position such a product: 4 TB SATA drive is an overkill for consumers, whereas lower capacities may not look really attractive keeping in mind the current endurance rating of the N18A memory with the MAS0902A-B2C. Meanwhile, 4 TB is not necessary enough for an HDD replacement in datacenters. For what it’s worth, the demonstration of a QLC-based SSD indicates that the new type of memory is here and is heading to all market segments.

Update: Certain specifications about the Intel QLC that were initially published with this article have been removed at the request of Maxio Technology while the product is still in the prototype stages. When we get final numbers, we will publish a news story to confirm them.

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  • FunBunny2 - Saturday, June 9, 2018 - link

    wait.... weren't we always told that 3D NAND would be built on Godzilla large (aka, olde) nodes and would have *better* P/E counts????? bait and switch???
  • Death666Angel - Saturday, June 9, 2018 - link

    And it is as you say, for 3 bit per cell, TLC 3D NAND. But QLC adds another bit, which means 16 voltage states to read/write and keep track of, instead of 8 for TLC. Bait and switch only for people who don't read things.
  • Billy Tallis - Saturday, June 9, 2018 - link

    For planar NAND, the smallest node I'm aware of QLC being made on was 43nm, and that was only good enough for use in memory cards, not SSDs. So 3D NAND is providing significant improvements to both endurance and capacity even for QLC. But QLC is still fundamentally not a high-endurance technology no matter what manufacturing node you use.
  • FunBunny2 - Saturday, June 9, 2018 - link

    it is bait and switch if this 500 count is the first reveal for 3D QLC. I certainly don't recall reading that 3D QLC would reverse the P/E count from TLC.
  • Death666Angel - Saturday, June 9, 2018 - link

    "I certainly don't recall reading that 3D QLC would reverse the P/E count from TLC. "-"Bait and switch only for people who don't read things."
    There's your problem then. Apart from reading about it, if you just think about it, it would be clear. TLC NAND released with 1k PE cycles at 2xnm. With QLC you gain only 33% storage, but you double your voltage states. 15nm TLC was about the cut off line for 2D NAND I think. They officially probably had 2K PE cycles for SSDs and maybe less for USB sticks and stuff. With 3D stuff, all I read is that you are in the 40nm region these days. So you are much larger, but not too much so, where it wouldn't matter anymore. All this knowledge combined with the fact that PE cycles went from about 100k to 10k when moving from SLC to MLC (2 voltage states vs 4 voltages states) and your math should work out to that early production QLC is very volatile and even later stage QLC might not be iron steel tought for years to come. Considering that my 500GB 840 (Gen1 TLC) did less than 40TB writes over 5.5 years functioning as my system and gaming drive (meaning 80PE cycles as long as we don't count write amplification), I'm pretty excited for this tech.
  • zodiacfml - Sunday, June 10, 2018 - link

    Interesting but I'm wary of data retention. Once you increase SSD capacity, it becomes tempting to use it for less used data like we use to do now, huge HDD alongside an SSD. HDDs are great for archiving as you only usually kill the drive heads/electronics but not the platters.

    Good for M.2 laptops as it will provide capacity at a small footprint.
  • MamiyaOtaru - Sunday, June 10, 2018 - link

    FFS bring on the PLC (then HLC?) drives. Let's just make reliability worse and worse to chase greater GB/dollar. I'd still get SLC drives if I could find them and I am not liking how hard it is becoming to find MLC drives
  • Lolimaster - Sunday, June 10, 2018 - link

    The new "SLC" is now called optane to some degree.
  • Notmyusualid - Sunday, June 10, 2018 - link

    My Intel SLC drive is still going strong, in a 3rd system.
  • shabby - Sunday, June 10, 2018 - link

    Nothing wrong with qlc, plc, hlc, 7lc, olc as long as the price is right. I wouldn't mind a high tb/low write ssd for archiving to replace hdd's.

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