Intel penetrates PCIe flash biz with long-lasting hardness

Duracell-Bunny-styled SSD 910 goes on... and on

High performance access to file storage

A little while after its competitors, Intel has come up with its own PCIe flash card, the SSD 910. It is not a speed king, but boy, does it last: five years at 10 full writes a day.

The SSD 910 caps out Intel's 300 and 700 SSD ranges. It is a half-height, half-length PCIe gen 2 x8 card storing 400GB or 800GB of 25nm MLC flash, featuring an Intel controller with Intel firmware. It does up to 180,000 random read IOPS (4K blocks) and 75,000 random writes, slower than by OCZ's Z-Drive R4.

The RM84 model of OCZ's SSD, also half-height and half-length, comes in 300GB, 600 GB and 1.2TB, and does up to 250,000 random read IOPS and 160,000 random write IOPS. We have to factor in the Z-Drive's extra capacity and might suppose that the 600GB version would do 200,000 and, say, 120,000 random read and write IOPS respectively – just guessing.

OCZ has announced a Z-Drive R5 which uses its own Indilinx controller instead of the bought-in Sandforce one on the R4. It's being billed as the world's fastest PCIe SSD, doing up to 3.2 million random read IOPS. Intel has a mountain to climb, a mountain range in fact, to get the 910's performance up to this level.

On the other hand, the 910 has a mighty impressive endurance, 10 full drive capacity writes a day for five years. Intel says the firmware is optimised for less wear and includes NAND error reduction and system error management. It claims that the 910 will last 30 times longer than a standard MLC product, in terms of written capacity over its lifetime.

Intel SSD 910

Intel SSD 910 HH, HL PCIe SDD

OCZ doesn't give out the Z-Drive's endurance, which you might think telling; we couldn't possibly comment.

The 910 streams read data at up to 2GB/sec and write data at 1GB/sec. The R4 Z-Drive does it at up to 2.8GB.sec, again outclassing the 910 specwise. We must point out that OCZ has been accused of fresh-out-of-the-box performance that tails off in the past and doing a specification comparison between different manufacturers' SSDs is only the first step of any investigations you should make.

Also, with manufacturers like Fusion-io, the leading PCIE flash card supplier, we don't get random read and write IOPS numbers based on the standard 4K block measure, rendering cross-supplier comparisons on this measure impossible.

Fusion-io's IoDrive 2 comes in MLC form, storing 365GB, 785GB or 1.2TB of data. It will stream read and write data at up to 1.2GB/sec, showing the 910 to be an adequate performer in the Fusion-io comparison department to say the least. LSI has an MLC Nytro WarpDrive but we don't have performance data for that, only for the SLC version. LSI also has a new MLC flash product coming. Virident's MLC FlashMax (1TB and 1,4TB) does 1.3GB/sec streaming read data and 600MB/sec streaming writes. The 910 wipes the floor with that.

There are many SLC PCIe SSDS or cards that will blow MLC ones out of the water, such as Micron's P320h – Micron partnering Intel in the fab business by the way; STEC's Kronos; the TMS RamSan-70; and Virident's TachION. Overall the level of competition in PCIe flash is rising steadily as server users realise just how limited I/Os from disk are in terms of IOPS and latency compared to those from flash.

Intel says that its SSD 910 "offers an easy-to-install, seamless post-deployment server storage upgrade that requires no changes to existing server design." If you do retrofit it to servers you'll need caching software to copy hot data off your disk drives and stick it in the 910. It will be relying on perceptions of its product quality, reliability and technical support to count high in customer's PCIe flash buying criteria, as well as the effectiveness of its channel.

Intel was able to get Super Micro support in its release. Tau Leng, general manager of High Performance Computing at Super Micro Computer, said: “With the Intel SSD 910, server systems can achieve higher levels of CPU utilisation to take advantage of increased processing power from ... products like the ... Xeon ... E5-2600 Series."

We note that Intel calls the 910 its "first entry in the 900 family of its highest-performing, PCIe-based SSDs" and expect both higher capacity versions and higher-performing versions, probably SLC-based, to be announced in the next few months.

For example, a larger PCIe card could support double the capacity, 1.6TB, or more, taking the product up into Fusion-io's ioDrive Duo area. There should be consequent increases in random read and write IOPS numbers as a result. We might expect Intel to provide a caching software product or to certify ones such as CacheCade from LSI or HyperCache from VeloBit.

Overall this is is an important new entry into the PCIe flash market, because of Intel's overall size, persistence and market presence. It will muscle into the market because of this and we'll have to see how the other suppliers react.

The 910 is sampling now with general availability slated for mid-year. There is a five-year warranty and prices are $1,929 for the 400GB model and $3,859 for the 800GB. This equates to $4.80/GB. ®

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