What is flash storage?

It’s touted as being faster than traditional hard drives, but what is flash storage and how does it work?

Flash memory

Over the last few years, flash storage has come to the fore. it's faster but a heck of a lot more expensive than your traditional platter of spinning rust. However, prices have started to come down making it more in reach of consumers and businesses alike.

But what is flash storage?

In essence, flash storage is any kind of drive or system that uses flash memory to store data for an extended amount of time. it's found in computers, smartphones and tablets, USB drives and cameras. It's also increasingly found in embedded systems and enterprise storage systems in all-flash arrays.

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How does flash memory work?

Flash memory is made from solid state chips. They have transistors connected to each other so they function like a NAND logic gate. Flash memory is non-volatile; this means it can preserve data even with the power off. Data is stored using a charge much like a capacitor representing a bit. These are inside surface-mounted chips connected to a printed circuit board.

When flash memory is erased, it's done so in entire blocks rather than individual bits. The drawback of this is that it's slower than RAM and will also wear out faster than it. But flash memory now lasts longer thanks to software techniques such as wear levelling (this arranges data across these blocks so that erasing and rewriting doesn't wear out a single block prematurely). Flash has a limited number of rewrite-erase cycles before individual blocks can no longer be used.

Why is it more expensive? Will it get cheaper?

Flash storage is more expensive than a normal hard drive because it's still a relatively new technology. The spinning platters of metal the make up a traditional hard drive, on the other hand, have been around for decades, allowing the technology to mature and become cheaper as manufacturing processes are finessed.

To get around transistors wearing out in flash memory, more transistors are used to compensate for defective ones, pushing up the cost. Also, the assembly process of a solid-state disk is a much more complex matter. The firmware and controller must reside in a small space and then be tested for hours to check compatibility and stability with the systems they are connected to; this adds to the cost.

But flash memory is being used more and more in all types of computing devices, so we are witnessing a decrease in the cost per gigabyte of the medium as this gives manufacturers the incentive to make technology cheaper.

What are its benefits?

Flash memory has no moving parts so can be used in more rugged devices or where a device can easily be dropped (such as a phone or tablet). it's also much faster than a normal hard drive so will boot up an operating system in far more quickly.

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