eMMC Adventures, Episode 3: Building a custom adapter to use cheap eMMC-based 32GB SSD modules

As seen on Hackaday!

While on my quest for more eMMC-based storage devices, I stumbled upon a few devices that piqued my interest: eMMC-based SATA SSDs! I found two models of particular interest: Dell had M.2 modules with a 2.5″ adapter, and HP had custom boards intended for use in cheap laptops (for example, the HP 14-an012nr). Although the former was easier for me to use (but not acquire), I will be focusing on the latter in this blog post.
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eMMC Adventures, Episode 2: Resurrecting a dead Intel Atom-based tablet by replacing failed eMMC storage

As seen on Hackaday!

Recently, I purchased a cheap Intel Atom-based Windows 8 tablet (the DigiLand DL801W) that was being sold at a very low price ($15 USD, although the shipping to Canada negated much of the savings) because it would not boot into Windows – rather, it would only boot into the UEFI shell and cannot be interacted with without an external USB keyboard/mouse.

The patient, er, tablet

The tablet in question is a DigiLand DL801W (identified as a Lightcomm DL801W in the UEFI/BIOS data). It uses an Intel Atom Z3735F – a 1.33GHz quad-core tablet SoC (system-on-chip), 16GB of eMMC storage and a paltry 1GB of DDR3L-1333 SDRAM. It sports a 4500 mAh single-cell Li-ion battery, an 8″ 800×1200 display, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi using an SDIO chipset, two cameras, one microphone, mono speaker, stereo headphone jack and a single micro-USB port with USB On-The-Go support (this allows the port to act as a USB host port, allowing connections with standard USB devices like keyboards, mice, and USB drives).

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eMMC Adventures, Episode 1: Building my own 64GB memory card with a $6 eMMC chip

As seen on Hackaday!

There’s always some electronics topic that I end up focusing all my efforts on (at least for a certain time), and that topic is now eMMC NAND Flash memory.

Overview

eMMC (sometimes shown as e.MMC or e-MMC) stands for Embedded MultiMediaCard; some manufacturers create their own name like SanDisk’s iNAND or Hynix’s e-NAND. It’s a very common form of Flash storage in smartphones and tablets, even lower-end laptops. The newer versions of the eMMC standard (4.5, 5.0 and 5.1) have placed greater emphasis on random small-block I/O (IOPS, or Input/Output operations per second; eMMC devices can now provide SSD-like performance (>10 MB/s 4KB read/write) without the higher cost and power consumption of a full SATA- or PCIe-based SSD.

MMC and eMMC storage is closely related to the SD card standard everyone knows today. In fact, SD hosts will often be able to use MMC devices without modification (electrically, they are the same, but software-wise SD has a slightly different feature set; for example SD cards have CPRM copy protection but lack the MMC’s TRIM and Secure Erase commands. The “e” in eMMC refers to the fact that the memory is a BGA chip directly soldered (embedded) to the motherboard (this also prevents it from being easily upgraded without the proper tools and know-how.

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Ramble: Fixstars’ 6TB SATA SSD – is it a thing?

If you know me personally, you’ll know that I absolutely love SSDs. Every PC I own has one, and I can’t stand to use a computer that runs off an HDD anymore. Naturally, when I read about a 6 TERABYTE SSD coming out, it piqued my curiosity.

Photo is owned by Fixstars and is not my property. Retrieved from http://www.fixstars.com/en/news/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/SSD-6000M.png

Official SSD-6000M promotional photo, taken from Fixstars’ press release

A Japanese company by the name of Fixstar has recently announced the world’s first 6TB SATA-based SSD. Although 2.5″ SSDs in such a capacity range already exist, they’re SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) based which limits them primarily to server/datacenter usage. According to Fixstars’ press release, their SSD-6000M supports sequential read speeds of 540 MB/s, and sequential write speeds of 520 MB/s, which is on par with most modern SATA III (6 Gbps) SSDs on the market today.

Concerns

However, after reading a bit online, I’m beginning to have some concerns about the drive’s real-world performance. One thing that is rather worrying is that the company has only mentioned sequential I/O speeds and has said nothing on random I/O or read/write latency; although SSDs do have much better sequential speeds than their mechanical spinning counterparts, they really shine when it comes to random I/O (which makes up much of a computer’s typical day-to-day usage). In the early, early days of SSDs, manufacturers cared only about sequential I/O and it resulted in some SSDs that were absolutely terrible when it came to random I/O (fun fact: I once had an early SSD, the Patriot PS-100, and its performance was so bad that it actually turned me off of SSDs for a few years, so I know how bad such unoptimized SSDs can perform).

Construction

The SSD appears to be made up of 52 eMMC (embedded MultiMediaCard) chips in a sort of RAID 0 configuration and an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) as the main controller. In layman’s terms, this SSD is literally made up of a bunch of SD cards “strapped” together with a chip so that it appears as one single drive. In that sense, one can make a similar solution using a board like this, which parallels multiple microSD cards to act as a single ‘SSD’.

Image retrieved from Amazon (http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51y0QqWL5sL.jpg)

The consumer equivalent of the SSD-6000M: SD cards and a controller chip. You can even get them from Amazon.

Conclusion

I’m wary of how well this SSD is going to take off. It could end up being a tremendous success, but it’ll certainly be out of the reach of the consumer market – either by its potentially poor random I/O performance, or its price (apparently it will cost well over $6000 USD).