Toshiba last week announced its first 3D NAND flash memory chips featuring QLC (quadruple level cell) BiCS architecture. The new components feature 64 layers and developers of SSDs and SSD controller have already received samples of the devices, which Toshiba plans to use for various types of storage solutions.

Toshiba’s first 3D QLC NAND chips feature 768 Gb (96 GB) capacity and uses 64 layers, just like the company’s BICS3 chips with 256 Gb and 512 Gb capacities launched in 2016 and 2017. Toshiba does not share further details about its 3D QLC NAND IC (integrated circuit), such as page size, the number of planes as well as interface data transfer rate, but expect the latter to be high enough to build competitive SSDs in late 2018 to early 2019 (that’s our assumption). Speaking of applications that Toshiba expects to use its 3D QLC NAND ICs, the maker of flash memory mentions enterprise and consumer SSDs, tablets and memory cards.


Besides intention to produce 768 Gb 3D QLC NAND flash for the aforementioned devices, the most interesting part of Toshiba’s announcement is endurance specification for the upcoming components. According to the company, its 3D QLC NAND is targeted for ~1000 program/erase cycles, which is close to TLC NAND flash. This is considerably higher than the amount of P/E cycles (100 – 150) expected for QLC by the industry over the years. At first thought, it comes across a typo - didn't they mean 100?. But the email we received was quite clear:

- What’s the number of P/E cycles supported by Toshiba’s QLC NAND?
- QLC P/E is targeted for 1K cycles.

It is unclear how Toshiba managed to increase the endurance of its 3D QLC NAND by an order of magnitude versus initially predicted. What we do know is that signal processing is more challenging with QLC than it is with TLC, as each cell needs to accurately determine sixteen different voltage profiles (up from 2 in SLC, 4 in MLC, and 8 in TLC). 

The easiest way to handle this would be to increase the cell size: by having more electrons per logic level, it is easier to maintain the data and also read from it / write to it. However, the industry is also in a density race, where bits per mm^2 is an issue. Also, to deal with read errors from QLC memory, controllers with very advanced ECC capabilities have to be used for QLC-based SSDs. Toshiba has its own QSBC (Quadruple Swing-By Codes) error correction technique, which it claims to be superior to LDPC (low-density parity-check) that is widely used today for TLC-powered drives. However, there are many LDPC implementations and it is unknown which of them Toshiba used for comparison against its QSBC. Moreover, there are more ECC methods that are often discussed at various industrial events (such as FMS), so Toshiba could be using any or none of them. The only thing that the company tells about its ECC now is that it is stronger than 120 bits/1 KB used today for TLC. In any case, if Toshiba’s statement about 1000 P/E cycles for QLC is correct, it means that that the company knows how to solve both endurance and signal processing challenges.

The main advantage of QLC NAND is increased storage density when compared to TLC and MLC, assuming the same die size. As was perhaps expected, die size numbers were not provided. However, last year Toshiba and Facebook talked about a case study QLC-powered SSD with 100 TB of capacity for WORM (write once read many) applications and it looks like large-capacity custom drives and memory cards will be the first to use QLC for cold storage. P/E cycles and re-write endurance isn't a concern for WORM at this stage.

Toshiba has begun to sample its 3D QLC NAND memory devices earlier this month to various parties to enable development of SSDs and SSD controllers. Taking into account development and qualification time, Toshiba plans to mass produce its BiCS3 768 Gb 3D QLC NAND chips around the same time it starts to make its the next generation BiCS4 ICs. The latter is set to hit mass production in 2018, but the exact timeframe is yet to be determined.

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Source: Toshiba

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  • ddriver - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    QML for cold storage? What's that? Like a month and your data is gone? Woot!
  • ddriver - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    QLC that is...
  • Drumsticks - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    Is QLC actually any more vulnerable to letting electrons escape than any other cell type? I'm not exactly a NAND architect, but how would reading/writing based on multiple levels of voltage have an effect on the ability to keep a charge?

    If you wear out the cell, that's probably fair (and that happens faster in QLC for sure), but we're talking about WORM, so presumably that's less of an issue.

    Probably worth bringing this up too if we're talking about data retention.
  • qap - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    It doesn't have an effect on ability to keep charge. But if you double the number of charge levels and you are loosing charge at the same rate, you will get to the charge representing different level in half the time needed before.
  • saratoga4 - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    Not more vulnerable, but you have a lot fewer to lose before you flip bits.

    Leakage can be made very low though, especially on drives with adequate cooling.
  • HomeworldFound - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    So say I archived my files on a bunch of SSDs. Would I need to plug them into a power station or something every so often just to keep my archives intact? If so how often and long would that need to occur on your average SSD?
  • EnzoLT - Monday, July 3, 2017 - link

    Considering my Pokemon Blue cartridge still has my save game files today, I'd say a pretty damn long time..
  • jimjamjamie - Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - link

    Ah yes I forgot Toshiba initially used 3D QLC NAND in game boy cartridges
  • Guspaz - Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - link

    Pokemon Blue stored the save game in volatile memory (SRAM) and used a battery to keep it powered. Your save is still there because the sram has an extremely low power draw.
  • Lolimaster - Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - link

    Those use ROM+eeprom not nand-flash, a totally different type of storage.

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