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Intel's SSD line-up reviewed

First INQpressions One Intel to rule 'em all
Wed Dec 17 2008, 20:55

Product: Intel SSD 2.5-inch internal drive: SLC 32GB and MLC 80GB models

Website: (anyone out there who still needs to guess that one?)

Well OK, Flash-based solid state drives aren't exactly the same ultimate power prize as the infamous Ring from that J R Tolkien's lovely trilogy, but the domination of the SSD market is still worthy of a huge battle between the memory-cum-storage vendors. After all, economic crisis or not, there is some money to be made out of these new, flashy (pun intended) and fashionable drives, and it's a market that can only grow for now.


Just take a look at Intel's own initial drive lineup. I took a glance at their 32 GB SLC (single level cell) and 80 GB MLC (multi level cell) drives. They are sleek, slim and darn good looking in the 2.5 inch format. My only complaint? That white sticker with black letters showing all the numbers and such spoils the looks: Intel would be much better off, in my opinion, if it was a black sticker with white letters, and only the barcode portion left in the usual black-on-white print.


Each drive has a 10-channel NAND Flash memory array with parallel access for maximum bandwidth, of course. The advanced controller and internal RAM - to which the writes are done initially anyway before optimised wear leveling algorithms write them across the SSD array - help max out the SATA 3 Gbps interface bandwidth to the fullest, with reads approaching 250 MB/s, and writes topping out at 70 MB/s for the MLC type, or 170 MB/s for the SLC type. So, MLC gives you much more density for the same buck, but at the cost of lower performance, especially in writes.

The balanced read/write numbers and the not so balanced high prices led Intel to focus the SLC drive on workstation and server markets, while the MLC one goes for high-end desktop and mobile units.

In this initial test, I ran the two drives next to each other in a reference Dual Xeon workstation I built earlier for LGA771 socket overclocking tests - a rare occurrence, mind you - compared to the LGA775 desktop stuff. Using Asus Z7S WS dual socket workstation mobo and a pair of Intel X5482 Xeon Harpertown CPUs, the little ATX format thingie gives us 8 total cores running at 3.6 GHz with dual FSB1800 and four channels of Kingston 2 GB FBD-900 CL5 memory for a total of 8 GB RAM. Nice lucky Chinese numbers: 8 cores, 8 GB RAM, FSB1800....

The first round was using Sandra 2009 disk performance tests, something different from the usual storage benchmarks, which we'll nevertheless run in the follow on test too. Here are the results for the initial runs:





Interesting, both SLC and MLC drives really post consistently high read transfer speeds across various sizes, equally consistently beating all HDDs and matching Intel's own TurboMemory miniature sticks for Vi$ta OS caching. Of course, in the SSD case, everything is at that speed anyway, rather than just a small cached amount.


Note that the higher write speed of the SLC SSD improve the IOPS reading quite a bit, while the measured read speeds are about the same for both drives - the access time is 1 ms in both cases. Also, the HDD speeds not only can't come anywhere close to saturating even the initial 1.5 Gbps SATA, but they also taper off by over 20% as we go into the inner media parts.


Now, this is 'dangerous'. While the newest drives from Samsung do claim to match or exceed Intel SSD performance (I can't testify to that since I haven't played with those), Intel has one huge potential advantage, almost impossible to beat: bundling. If the Blue Man chip co wants to "rule 'em all" in the SSD flash market, it just needs to pull off a decent bundling campaign the likes of "for every high end Core i7 CPU, get a $$$ discount coupon on our MLC Flash," or "for every pair of Xeon 5500 Gainestown workstation CPUs, get a voucher for a discounted pair of SLC Flash drives, and double the amount if you get the top speed bins". Same, but to a lesser extent, would apply to Intel's mobos and even mobile Montevina and Calpella platforms.

How to beat that? Hard to, unless you offer even faster DRAM SSD drives for a good price. If you're a high end user, chances are you'll love the extra speed benefits of Flash SSD, and you won't care that much about the future write reliability since, being a high-end buff, it's likely you'll replace your gear within two years anyway. At least for now, SSD markets - in serious sizes like 32 GB and above - are only in the realm of those high end users.

Another interesting point, correct me if I may be wrong: usually, standard HDD drive reliability problems go up with adding more drives to striped RAID0 setups. That's why there are RAID5, RAID6 and such where ECC data is spread across the drives to enable redundancy, or even RAID10 with the fully duplicated stripe array for good reliability at the cost of double the drives.

In a flash SSD striped array, in theory at least, the write transactions - and the associated reliability problems - are spread across multiple drives, and write failure, or cell destruction due to too many writes, is not more likely. Our next test will explore exactly that: RAID0 situations with two or more Intel SSD drives, SLC and MLC alike.

The Good
+Sleek design
+Top performance
+No problems running them
+Top brand name

The Bad
-Another market for Intel to, potentially, dominate

The Ugly
Could be, should be cheaper... soon?

Bartenders Report - Intel 2.5-inch SSDs, SLC 32GB and MLC 80GB



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