How to Enable NVMe Zoned Namespaces

Hardware changes for ZNS

At a high level, in order to enable ZNS, most drives on the market only require a firmware update. ZNS doesn't put any new requirements on SSD controllers or other hardware components; this feature can be implemented for existing drives with firmware changes alone.

The critical element in hardware comes down to when an SSD is designed to support only zoned namespaces. First and foremost, a ZNS-only SSD doesn't need anywhere near as much overprovisioning as a traditional enterprise SSD. ZNS SSDs are still responsible for performing wear leveling, but this no longer requires a large spare area for the garbage collection process. Used properly, ZNS allows the host software to avoid almost all of the circumstances that would lead to write amplification inside the SSD. Enterprise SSDs commonly use overprovisioning ratios up to 28% (800GB usable per 1024GB of flash on typical 3 DWPD models) and ZNS SSDs can expose almost all of that capacity to the host system without compromising the ability to deliver high sustained write performance. ZNS SSDs still need some reserve capacity (for example, to cope with failures that crop up in flash memory as it wears out), but Western Digital says we can expect ZNS to allow roughly a factor of 10 reduction in overprovisioning ratios.

Better control over write amplification also means QLC NAND is a more viable option for use cases that would otherwise require TLC NAND. Enterprise storage workloads often lead to write amplification factors of 2-5x. With ZNS, the SSD itself causes virtually no write amplification and clever host software can avoid causing much write amplification, so the overall effect is a boost to drive lifespan that offsets the lower endurance of QLC compared to TLC (or beyond QLC). Even in a ZNS SSD, QLC NAND is still fundamentally slower than TLC, but that same near-elimination of background data management within the SSD means a QLC-based ZNS SSD can probably compete with TLC-based traditional SSDs on QoS metrics even if the total throughput is lower.


The other major hardware change enabled by ZNS is a drastic reduction in DRAM requirements. The Flash Translation Layer (FTL) in traditional block-based SSDs requires about 1GB of DRAM for every 1TB of NAND flash. This is used to store the address mapping or indirection tables that record the physical NAND flash memory address that is currently storing each Logical Block Address (LBA). The 1GB per 1TB ratio is a consequence of the FTL managing the flash with a granularity of 4kB. Right off the bat, ZNS gets rid of that requirement by letting the SSD manage whole zones that are hundreds of MB each. Tracking which physical NAND erase blocks comprise each zone now requires so little memory that it could be done with on-controller SRAM even for SSDs with tens of TB of flash. ZNS doesn't completely eliminate the need for SSDs to include DRAM, because the metadata that the drive needs to store about each zone is larger than what a traditional FTL needs to store for each LBA, and drives are likely to also use some DRAM for caching writes - more on this later.

NVMe Zoned Namespaces Explained The Software Model
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  • Luminar - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

    So if this is software, what's stopping this vendors from making this a retroactive firmware update?
  • BinaryTB - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

  • Luminar - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

    If only drive controllers were jailbreakable.
  • althaz - Friday, August 7, 2020 - link

    I mean, they technically are. But it's not really worth the expense.
  • close - Friday, August 7, 2020 - link

    Storage is the kind of segment where I'd 100% take reliability over performance. Slow storage is still storage, unreliable storage is a data shredder.
  • JlHADJOE - Friday, August 7, 2020 - link

  • Steven Wells - Saturday, August 8, 2020 - link

    Great point @close. So many concepts of host managed storage all come down to “but Mr Drive Vendor this is fully reliable, right? Even if I totally screw up the host side management?”
  • close - Sunday, August 9, 2020 - link

    Well nothing is 100% reliable and you should always plan on the possibility of it failing. But for example "jailbreaking" the controller to use some form of custom firmware that would increase performance almost certainly at the cost of reliability is really like shooting all of your storage at its feet to make it run faster. Sooner or later you'll hit the foot.

    Go for something that's validated and proven if your data matters. There's no guarantee, just a better likelihood of not loosing it.
  • dotjaz - Friday, August 7, 2020 - link

    If only jailbreak QA is better than OEM, oh wait, there is none.
  • Billy Tallis - Thursday, August 6, 2020 - link

    I think Radian might actually be doing that. In general though, adding a feature of this size and complexity in a firmware update is something your customers will want to put through a full QA/qualification cycle before deploying. And by the time a customer is done updating their software stack to use ZNS, it's probably time to buy (or start qualifying) new SSDs anyways.

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