When Solid State Drives are not that solid

It looked just like another page in the middle of the night. One of the servers of our search API stopped processing the indexing jobs for an unknown reason. Since we build systems in Algolia for high availability and resiliency, nothing bad was happening. The new API calls were correctly redirected to the rest of the healthy machines in the cluster and the only impact on the service was one woken-up engineer. It was time to find out what was going on.

1) the issue raised by Algolia is due to a Linux kernel error
2) Linux kernel error can affect any SSD under the same operating conditions
3) Samsung has also posted a Linux kernel patch that should fix the issue

UPDATE June 16:
A lot of discussions started pointing out that the issue is related to the newly introduced queued TRIM. This is not correct. The TRIM on our drives is un-queued and the issue we have found is not related to the latest changes in the Linux Kernel to disable this feature.

# smartctl -l gplog,0x13 /dev/sda
smartctl 6.2 2013-07-26 r3841 [x86_64-linux-3.16.0-31-generic] (local build)
Copyright (C) 2002-13, Bruce Allen, Christian Franke,

General Purpose Log 0x13 does not exist (override with ‘-T permissive’ option)

UPDATE June 17:
We got contacted by Samsung and we provided them all the system specifications and all the information about the issue we had. We will continue to provide Samsung all the necessary information in order to resolve the issue.

UPDATE June 18:
We just had a conference call with the European branch and the Korean HQ of Samsung. Their engineers are going to visit one of the datacenters we have servers in and in cooperation with our server provider they will inspect the mentioned SSDs in our SW and HW setup.

UPDATE June 19:
On Monday June 22, the engineering team from Samsung is going analyze one of our servers in Singapore and if nothing is found on-site, the server will travel to Samsung HQ in Korea for further analysis.

UPDATE July 13:
Since the last update of this blog-post, we have been in a cooperation with Samsung trying to help them find the issue, during this investigation we agreed with Samsung not to communicate until their approval.

As the issue was not reproduced on our server in Singapore, the reproduction is now running under Samsung supervision in Korea, out of our environment. Although Samsung requested multiple times an access to our software and corrupted data, we could not provide it to them in order to protect the privacy and data of our customers.

Samsung asked us to inform you about this:

  • Samsung tried to duplicate the failure with the latest script provided to them, but no single failure has been reproduced so far.
  • Samsung will do further tests, most likely from week 29 onwards, with a much more intensive script provided by Algolia.

After unsuccessful tries to reproduce the issue with Bash scripts we have decided to help them by creating a small C++ program that simulates the writing style and pattern of our application (no files are open with O_DIRECT). We believe that if the issue is coming from a specific way we are using the standard kernel calls, it might take a couple of days and terabytes of data to be written to the drive. We have been informed by Samsung that no issue of this kind have been reported to them. Our server provider has modified their Ubuntu 14.04 images to disable the fstrim cron in order to avoid this issue. For the last couple of months after not using trim anymore we have not seen the issue again.

UPDATE July 17:
We have just finished a conference call with Samsung considering the failure analysis of this issue. Samsung engineering team has been able to successfully reproduce the issue with our latest provided binary.

Samsung had a concrete conclusion that the issue is not related to Samsung SSD or Algolia software but is related to the Linux kernel.

Samsung has developed a kernel patch to resolve this issue and the official statement with details will be released tomorrow, July 18 on Linux community with the Linux patch guide. Our testing code is available on GitHub.

This has been an amazing ride, thank you everyone for joining, we have arrived at the destination.

For all followers of this blogpost and all the new readers:

The discovered issue has much bigger impact than we originally expected and is not caused by Samsung SSDs, as we originally assumed.
My personal apologies to Samsung!


The NGINX daemon serving all the HTTP(S) communication of our API was up and ready to serve the search queries but the indexing process crashed. Since the indexing process is guarded by supervise, crashing in a loop would have been understandable but a complete crash was not. As it turned out the filesystem was in a read-only mode. All right, let’s assume it was a cosmic ray 🙂 the filesystem got fixed, files were restored from another healthy server and everything looked fine again.

The next day another server ended with filesystem in read-only, two hours after another one and then next hour another one. Something was going on. After restoring the filesystem and the files, it was time for serious analysis since this was not a one time thing. At this point, we did a breakdown of the software involved in our storage stack and went through the recent changes.

Investigation & debugging time!

We first asked ourselves if it could be related to our software. Are we using non-safe system calls or processing the data in an unsafe way? Did we incorrectly read and write the files in the memory before flushing it to disk?

  • Filesystem – Is there a bug in ext4? Can we access the memory space of allocation tables by accident?
  • Mdraid – Is there a bug in mdadm? Did we use an improper configuration?
  • Driver – Does the driver have a bug?
  • SSD – Is the SSD dying? Or even worse, is there a problem with the firmware of the drive?

We even started to bet where the problem was and exactly proposed, in this order, the possible solutions going from easy to super-hard.

Going through storage procedures of our software stack allowed us to set up traps and in case the problem happens again, we would be able to better isolate the corrupted parts. Looking at every single storage call of our engine gave us enough confidence that the problem was not coming from the way in which we manipulate the data. Unfortunately.

One hour later, another server was corrupted. This time we took it out of the cluster and started to inspect it bit by bit. Before we fixed the filesystem, we noticed that some pieces of our files were missing (zeroed) – file modification date was unchanged, size was unchanged, just some parts were filled with zeros. Small files were completely erased. This was weird, so we started to think if it was possible that our application could access certain portions of the memory where the OS/filesystem had something mapped because otherwise our application cannot modify a file without the filesystem noticing. Having our software written in C++ brought a lot of crazy ideas of what happened. This turned out to be a dead-end as all of these memory blocks were out of our reach.

So is there an issue in the ext4? Going through the kernel changelog looking for ext4 related issues was a terrifying experience. In almost every version we found a fixed bug that could theoretically impact us. I have to admit, I slept better before reading the changelog.

We had kernels 3.2, 3.10, 3.13 and 3.16 distributed between the most often corrupted machines and waited to see which of the mines blows up. All of them did. Another dead-end. Maybe there was an issue in ext4 that no one else has seen before? The chance that we were this “lucky” was quite low and we did not want to end up in a situation like that. The possibility of a bug in ext4 was still open but highly improbable.

What if there was an issue in mdadm? Looking at the changelog gave us confidence that we should not go down this path.

The level of despair was reaching a critical level and the pages in the middle of the night were unstoppable. We spent a big portion of two weeks just isolating machines as quickly as possible and restoring them as quickly as possible. The one thing we did was to implement a check in our software that looked for empty blocks in the index files, even when they were not used, and alerted us in advance.

Not a single day without corruptions

While more and more machines were dying, we had managed to automate the restore procedure to a level we were comfortable with. At every failure, we tried to look at different patterns of the corruption in hopes that we would find the smallest common denominator. They all had the same characteristics. But one thing started to be more and more clear – we saw the issue only on a portion of our servers. The software stack was identical but the hardware was slightly different. Mainly the SSDs were different but they were all from the same manufacturer. This was very alarming and led us to contact our server provider to ask if they have ever seen something like this before. It’s hard to convince a technical support person about a problem that you see only once in a while, with the latest firmware and that you cannot reproduce on demand. We were not very successful but at least we had one small victory on our side.

Knowing that the issue existed somewhere in the combination of the software and drive itself, we reproduced the identical software stack from our servers with different drives. And? Nothing, the corruption appeared again. So it was quite safe to assume the problem was not in the software stack and was more drive related. But what causes a block to change the content without the rest of the system noticing? That would be a lot of rotten bits in a sequence…

The days started to become a routine – long shower, breakfast, restoring corrupted servers, lunch, restoring corrupted servers, dinner, restoring corrupted servers. Until one long morning shower full of thinking, “how big was the sequence?” As it turned out, the lost data was always 512 bytes, which is one block on the drive. One step further, a block ends up to be full of zeroes. A hardware bug? Or is the block zeroed? What can zero the block? TRIM! Trim instructs the SSD drive to zero the empty blocks. But these block were not empty and other types of SSDs were not impacted. We gave it a try and disabled TRIM across all of our servers. It would explain everything!

The next day not a single server was corrupted, two days silence, then a week. The nightmare was over! At least we thought so… a month after we isolated the problem, a server restarted and came up with corrupted data but only from the small files – including certificates. Even improper shutdown cannot cause this.

Poking around in the source code of the kernel looking for the trim related code, we came to the trim blacklist. This blacklist configures a specific behavior for certain SSD drives and identifies the drives based on the regexp of the model name. Our working SSDs were explicitly allowed full operation of the TRIM but some of the SSDs of our affected manufacturer were limited. Our affected drives did not match any pattern so they were implicitly allowed full operation.

The complete picture

At this moment we finally got a complete picture of what was going on. The system was issuing a TRIM to erase empty blocks, the command got misinterpreted by the drive and the controller erased blocks it was not supposed to. Therefore our files ended-up with 512 bytes of zeroes, files smaller than 512 bytes were completely zeroed. When we were lucky enough, the misbehaving TRIM hit the super-block of the filesystem and caused a corruption. After disabling the TRIM, the live big files were no longer corrupted but the small files that were once mapped to the memory and never changed since then had two states – correct content in the memory and corrupted one on the drive. Running a check on the files found nothing because they were never fetched again from the drive and just silently read from the memory. Massive reboot of servers came into play to restore the data consistency but after many weeks of hunting a ghost we came to the end.

As a result, we informed our server provider about the affected SSDs and they informed the manufacturer. Our new deployments were switched to different SSD drives and we don’t recommend anyone to use any SSD that is anyhow mentioned in a bad way by the Linux kernel. Also be careful, even when you don’t enable the TRIM explicitly, at least since Ubuntu 14.04 the explicit FSTRIM runs in a cron once per week on all partitions – the freeze of your storage for a couple of seconds will be your smallest problem.


Broken SSDs: (Drives on which we have detected the issue)

  • SAMSUNG MZ7WD480HCGM-00003
  • SAMSUNG MZ7GE480HMHP-00003
  • SAMSUNG MZ7GE240HMGR-00003
  • Samsung SSD 840 PRO Series
    recently blacklisted for 8-series blacklist
  • Samsung SSD 850 PRO 512GB
    recently blacklisted as 850 Pro and later in 8-series blacklist

Working SSDs: (Drives on which we have NOT detected the issue)

  • Intel S3500
  • Intel S3700
  • Intel S3710
About the authorAdam Surak

Adam Surak

Director of Infrastructure & Security @ Algolia

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