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Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, Intel Ups The Ante
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Date: Sep 16, 2008
Section:Storage
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction and Specifications



There's an old cliche' that certainly applies to commodity semiconductor and electronics technology, as well as many other competitive arenas; "go big or go home".  If you look at major semiconductor manufacturers, like Intel, AMD, Samsung and NVIDIA, you'll notice that they generally do not enter a new market lightly.  In addition, they almost never partially resource a new market penetration effort.  Timing is definitely key but it usually doesn't pay off to tread lightly when it's time to execute.  It's simply a question of doing the business case analysis, justifying the ROI and then placing your bets.  Go big or go home. It's all-in or sit on the sidelines and watch.  And you know, when Intel decides they want in, the stack of chips they're playing with isn't the kind you find at the cheap tables.

With that in mind, let's consider the future of the Solid State Disk market and where it's going.  We've said it before, the days of rotational media are numbered.  Though SSDs and spinning drives will likely coexist for  some time, traditional hard drive technology will eventually go the way of the dinosaur.  SSDs have no moving parts to wear out, they consume much less power, produce very little heat and their performance will continue to improve over time, with the kind of scaling that comes along with a semiconductor performance evolution curve.  Though the migration will be gradual, starting first at the consumer level, then moving into the industrial and enterprise space, it's a matter of time before the world literally goes solid state for its storage.  In the short term, especially at the consumer level, the SSD market is expected to have explosive growth over the next year or so, some analysts predicting well in excess of 100% annually.

And so it goes without saying, Solid State Storage is a safe bet.  Today Intel just bellied up to the table and dropped their chips down on the SSD market, and in typical Intel fashion, they're going in big.  The following is a full evaluation of Intel's new consumer-targeted X25-M Solid State Drive.  Is Intel playing to win?  You tell us...
   



Intel MLC Series Solid State Drives
Specifications and Features

Model Name

Intel X18-M Mainstream SATA Solid-State Drive
Intel X25-M Mainstream SATA Solid-State Drive

Capacity

80GB and 160GB

NAND Flash Components

Intel® Multi-Level Cell (MLC) NAND Flash Memory
10 Channel Parallel Architecture with 50nm MLC ONFI 1.0 NAND

Bandwidth

Up to 250MB/s Read Speeds
Up to 70MB/s Write Speeds

Read Latency

85 microseconds

Interface

SATA 1.5 Gb/s and 3.0 Gb/s

Form factor

X18-M: 1.8" Industry Standard Hard Drive Form Factor
X25-M: 2.5" Industry Standard Hard Drive Form Factor

Compatibility

SATA Revision 2.6 Compliant. Compatible with SATA 3.0 Gb/s with Native Command Queuing and SATA 1.5 Gb/s interface rates

Life expectancy

1.2 million hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)

Power consumption

Active: 150mW Typical (PC workload)
Idle (DIPM): 0.06W Typical

Operating shock

1,000G / 0.5ms

Operating temperature

0°C to +70°C

RoHS Compliance

Meets the requirements of EU RoHS Compliance Directives

Product health monitoring

Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (S.M.A.R.T.) commands plus additional SSD monitoring


As a precursor to this product overview and performance evaluation, if you have an extra cycle of bandwidth or two, we'd highly suggest checking out our recent 4-way SSD round-up article, located here.  This article steps through various aspects of Solid State Disk technology, including the different memory types and their advantages and disadvantages. 

Intel is actually launching two flavors MLC-based Solid State Disks today, the X18-M and X25-M.  We'll be looking at an 80GB X25-M drive that is built on a 2.5" form-factor, but Intel also has 160GB densities and 1.8" versions of the drive as well.  From there, this spec table is straight-forward.  Intel claims their drives are capable of a maximum read bandwidth of 250MB/sec and write bandwidth of up to 70MB/sec.  Intel also specifies read latency of 85 microseconds,which is of course a fraction of even the fastest spinning hard drives at 4ms. or so.  Intel also specifies a 1.2 million hour MTBF (mean time before failure), which is about on par with the average hard drive.  Power consumption on the other hand is again a fraction of what most spinning discs are measured at.  The average spinning drive weighs in with an active power consumption somewhere in between 8 and 10 watts, while most SSDs, including Intel's, offer sub-watt power consumption under "typical conditions", though as we'll show you in the pages that follow, that doesn't mean max power consumption is that low.  However, as you can imagine, when you read from or write to an SSD, you don't have to light up all the flash memory in the drive to get at the data.
 

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Anatomy Of The X25-M 80GB SATA Solid State Disk


Intel's new line of SSDs looks pretty much like any other Solid State Drive on the exterior, but it's the interior components that make up Intel's "special sauce".

 

 

The outside label of the Intel X25-M 80GB SSD shows a model number of SSDSA2SH080G1GN and it's described as a 2.5", 3GB/s SATA SSD 80GB, 5V, 1A.  As you can also see, we have an engineering sample here that is Pb-free (lead free, RoHS compliant) and made in China.

Under the hood is where all the magic happens, and as you can see save for one 128Mb Samsung DRAM chip, this SSD is all Intel inside.  The Samsung DRAM is a rather shallow cache buffer at 128 megabit versus megabytes.  This memory is temporary scratch-pad storage for Intel's flash memory controller ASIC.  This chip provides access to 10X NAND Flash channels and offers features like Native Command Queuing and up to 32 concurrent read/write operations.  In addition, this chip also offers a standard wear-leveling algorithm so that the erase/re-write cycle endurance of the drive is evenly spread across all memory locations. 

Intel's Adaptive Memory Controller Technology
Finally, and most importantly, Intel's flash memory controller offers dynamic workload adaptation such that the drive will actually adjust on the fly to specific workload conditions.  For example, install this drive into a laptop and over time it will adjust and optimize to the OS and standard application workload and access pattern requirements for the most active file sizes and read/write operations you run.  If you then re-purpose the drive into another type of installation or dramatically change your traditional storage workload, the drive will have to re-adapt to your new usage model and in the interim, performance will be degraded temporarily (we actually witnessed this in a benchmark run).  We should note that a user's workload usage model would have to change fairly significantly for it to affect short-term performance.  Regardless, this is a performance optimization that you will see pays dividends in our upcoming benchmark runs.
 
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The Intel SSD Roadmap Outlook


Beyond just this launch, Intel is readying a full family of Solid State Storage products that they'll be bringing to market not only for the mainstream and enthusiast or performance-minded consumer, but also a series of enterprise-class products as well.

 

While this slide from Intel does have a whiff of traditional marketing rhetoric, there is also a lot of truth to the fact that the hard drive has been the slowest component of any computing architecture and it still is today.  Hence, Intel is claiming that this is an obvious place that the company should claim as new turf on which to establish a leadership position.  The premise being that, if semiconductor technology can ramp up compute performance exponentially, that same technology will enable storage subsystems a similar performance growth curve.

Also, Intel is tipping their hand today with respect to future SSD products.  As we can see here, Intel's SLC-based (Single-Level Cell) drives will be branded as their "Extreme" performance product offerings.  Specifically, the X25-E series of SLC-based drives will offer the same 250MB/sec Sustained Read performance as the X25-M product but Sustained Write performance, which is definitely the most significant bottleneck with any SSD, will be ramped to 170MB/sec, which equates over 2X the available bandwidth.  We're definitely execited to take a look at the X25-E product when it hits the market in Q4 this year.

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Test Methodology, IOMeter and SANDRA

Our Test MethodologiesUnder each test condition, the Solid State Drives were installed as secondary volumes in our testbeds, with a standard spinning hard disk for the OS and benchmark installations.  The SSDs were left blank without partitions wherever possible, unless a test required them to be partitioned and formatted, as was the case with our ATTO benchmark tests. Windows firewall, automatic updates and screen savers were all disabled before testing. In all test runs, we rebooted the system and waited several minutes for drive activity to settle before invoking a test.

The IOMeter Question:

As we noted in our recent SSD round-up article, though IOMeter is clearly thought of as a well respected industry standard drive benchmark, we're becoming increasingly uncomfortable with it for testing SSDs, as well as comparing their performance to standard hard drives.  The fact of the matter is, though our actual results with IOMeter appear to be accurate, it is debatable whether or not certain access patterns, as they are presented to and measured on an SSD, actually provide a valid example of real world performance, at least for the average end user.  Here's a sampling of our test runs with IOMeter version 2006.07.27 on our SSD sample lot.  We should note that these tests were performed on a Windows XP installation (separate OS drive) to eliminate any variability related to Windows Vista.  All other tests in this article were performed with a Windows Vista installation (also on a separate OS drive).

 

In the tables above, we're showing two sets of access patterns; one with an 8K transfer size, 80% reads (20% writes) and 80% random (20% sequential) access and one with IOMeter's default access pattern of 2K transfers, 67% reads and 100% random access.  What you see in the table above is an example of how random write operations kill I/O throughput of SSDs in IOMeter.  There is no question random write performance is the Achille's Heel of MLC SSDs, though SLC-based SSDs have a much easier time with it.  However, as you can see in the table, Intel's dynamically adjusting SATA to Flash controller on the X25-M SSD, alleviates this bottleneck completely and allows the SSD to adapt to the workload and access pattern of IOMeter.  As such, Intel's SSD blows all the other SSDs we tested right out of the water.

As we mentioned earlier in our discussion of Intel's adaptive memory controller technology, after these IOMeter tests, the Intel SSD had to be "re-conditioned" back to a factory-shipped state with a secure erase procedure, since these rigorous tests flood the drive with a very specific access pattern.  Regardless, the question is, do these results equate linearly to a real-world performance advantage of this magnitude?  As you'll see in our forthcoming benchmarks, Intel's new SSD certainly puts up very impressive numbers in all of our tests, but not by a factor of 100 over the next fastest SSD.

HotHardware Test System
Intel C2E Powered

Processor -

Motherboard -


Video Card -

Memory -


Audio -

Hard Drives -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850


Asus Striker II Extreme
(nForce 790i SLI Ultra chipset)


GeForce 8800 GTX

2048MB Corsair DDR3-1333
CAS 7

Integrated on board

Western Digital Velociraptor - OS
Western Digital Velociraptor - Test
300GB - 10,000RPM - SATA 3Gb/s

OCZ Core Series 64GB
OCZ Standard 64GB
Super Talent MasterDrive MX 64GB
Intel X25-M 80GB


Operating System -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-


Relevant Software:
Windows Vista Ultimate
Intel 8.6.1006
DirectX 10

NVIDIA ForceWare v175.19

Benchmarks Used:
HD Tach 3.0.1.0
ATTO ver 2.02
PCMark Vantage
SiSoftware Sandra XII SP2


In our SiSoft SANDRA testing, we used the Physical Disk test suite. We ran the tests without formatting the drives and both write and read performance metrics are detailed below.  Please forgive the use of these screen captures and thumbnails, which will require a few more clicks on your part.  However, we felt it was important to show you the graph lines in each of the SANDRA test runs, so you are able to see how the drives perform over time and memory location and not just an average rated result. 

SANDRA Physical Disk Read Performance

 
Intel X25-M 80GB MLC

 
OCZ 64GB SLC


OCZ Core Series


Super Talent
MasterDrive MX


In our read performance test with SANDRA, the Intel X25-M drive offered the fastest sustained read bandwidth at 225.32MB/sec performance, which is roughly 92% faster than its nearest competitor, the OCZ Core Series SSD.  Also note that the drive's performance graph line is relatively flat and clean with only two small dips into the 200MB/sec range across its 80GB volume.


SANDRA Physical Disk Write Performance


Intel X25-M 80GB MLC


OCZ 64GB SLC


OCZ Core Series


Super Talent
MasterDrive MX

In terms of write performance, the Intel SSD again offered very flat, clean spike and valley-free performance across its entire 80GB of space, but it couldn't quite keep up with OCZ's standard SLC-based (Samsung) drive.  Intel's SSD fell behind the leader by about 17% or so but kept a nice linear pace with the others in our test group.
 

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ATTO Disk Benchmark

ATTO is a more straight-forward type of disk benchmark that measures transfers across a specific volume length.  It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and graphs them out in an easily interpreted chart.  We chose 8kb through 1024kb transfer sizes over a total max volume length of 32MB.  This test was performed on blank, formatted drives with NTFS partitions.

ATTO Disk Benchmark - Read/Write Performance
Version 2.02



Intel X25-M 80GB MLC


OCZ Standard SLC 64GB



WD VelociRaptor 300GB HD

 

 
OCZ Core Series 64GB

 
Super Talent MasterDrive MX 64GB

Once again, our apologies for the abundance of thumbnails here but obviously the bar graphs are numerous and important for extracting a complete view of the data.  Here we see a similar picture to our SANDRA tests, but with ATTO, the numbers are even a bit more pronounced for both sides of the read/write equation.  In short, the Intel X25-M MLC-based SSD eclipses the other drives, offering almost 2X the performance of the fastest competitive SSD and leaving the WD VelociRaptor far behind as well.  On the write side of things, once again the Intel drive puts up respectable but slightly lower bandwidth numbers versus its other SSD counterparts.
 
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HD Tach Testing

Simpli Software's HD Tach is described on the company's web site as such: "HD Tach is a low level hardware benchmark for random access read/write storage devices such as hard drives, removable drives, flash devices, and RAID arrays. HD Tach uses custom device drivers and other low level Windows interfaces to bypass as many layers of software as possible and get as close to the physical performance of the device being tested."

HD Tach v3.0.1.0
http://www.simplisoftware.com/

 
Intel X25-M 80GB

 
OCZ Standard 64B



WD VelociRaptor 300GB HD

 
OCZ Core Series 64GB

 
Super Talent MasterDrive MX 64GB


If you're the kind that likes to look at pretty line graphs, then these HD Tach tests will tickle your NAND-gate to be sure.  Without even clicking through to the larger version images, you can see a very pronounced performance characteristic of the Intel SSD.  Simply put, Intel's X25-M has the most consistent, glitch-free performance of any drive we tested here, including even the VelociRaptor, which shows the traditional tail off in performance as the drive has to access data at the outer perimeter of its platters.

Then, looking closer at the numbers, we see Intel's performance trend continues, with the X25-M SSD trouncing all comers in read performance by a huge margin, two times that of the 10K RPM VelociRaptor hard drive.  On the write side of the ball, Intel's bandwidth consistency pays off and the Intel MLC-based SSD actually even outpaces the OCZ SLC-based drive by a small percentage.
 
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PCMark Vantage HDD Testing

Next we ran the new Intel SSD through a battery of tests in PCMark Vantage from Futuremark Corp. We specifically used only the HDD Test module of this benchmark suite to evaluate all of the drives we tested. Feel free to consult Futuremark's white paper on PCMark Vantage for an understanding of what each test component entails and how it calculates its measurements. For specific information on how the HDD Test module arrives at its performance measurements, we'd encourage you to read pages 35 and 36 of the white paper.

Futuremark's PCMark Vantage
http://www.futuremark.com

We really like PCMark Vantage's HDD Performance for its real-world application measurement approach to testing.  From simple Windows Vista start-up performance to data streaming from a disk drive in a game engine and video editing with Windows Movie Maker, we feel confident that these tests best illustrate the real performance profile of our SSDs in an end user/consumer PC usage model.




Let's put things into perspective here first.  Obviously, this graph is what we in the industry call a "chart surfer's delight".  In other words, you don't have to read a single word of text on this page to see how the Intel X25-M SSD dominated all other drives that we tested, including of course the WD VelociRaptor, in this series of tests.  The metric PCMark Vantage rates here is MB/sec of available bandwidth to handle each of these specific standard desktop application workloads.  Obviously Intel's bars are significantly longer than all the others, but if we do the math, the 80GB Intel SSD is offering over two times the available bandwidth versus even the fastest competitive SSD from OCZ, which in reality is actually a re-branded Samsung product. 

The margin of gain with the Intel SSD is unmistakably huge.  However, we should note that, for example, when we actually imaged each of the SSDs tested with a clean Windows Vista SP1 installation, and then measured boot times manually, we observed that all SSDs in this group booted Vista to a desktop in a little under 20 seconds.  The Intel SSD did seem to shave a second or two off boot time but it wasn't nearly as prominent as these Vantage HDD test bar graphs suggest.  That said, we'd offer that you should interpret the available upside bandwidth with the Intel X25-M as offering room for growth.  For example, as your drive becomes loaded up with data or you install applications that may require OS start-up support in Vista, you'd likely find that the Intel SSD would offer more throughput.  This same correlation can be drawn for all of the other tests here as well.
 
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PCMark Vantage HDD Testing Continued

Our next series of Vantage tests will stress the current major weakness of all SSDs, that being write performance. Applications like video editing, streaming and recording are not what we would call a strong suit for the average SSD, due ot their high mix of random write transactions.  We should also note that it's not so much a weakness of the memory itself, but rather the interface and control algorithms that deal with inherent erase block latency of MLC NAND flash.  SSD manufacturers are getting better at this, but still today, especially with consumer grade SSDs, spinning drives have the edge with respect to write intensive applications over MLC-based Flash drives, but not as much over SLC-type SSDs.

Or so it would seem if you look at the current offerings from other manufacturers.  However, it appears Intel has found a way around this bottleneck.

Futuremark's PCMark Vantage
http://www.futuremark.com





If you look at the PCMark Vantage white paper, as we mentioned earlier, pages 35 and 36 provide you insight into each of these tests and their specific workloads.  We would offer that the most demanding tests for an SSD would be the Windows Movie Maker test, which measures concurrent drive performance of video editing using Windows Movie Maker with a 53%/47%  read/write ratio, as well as the Windows Media Center and Windows Media Player tests which have 50/50 read/write  and 78%/22% read/write workloads, respectively.  The Windows Media Center test specifically is the most demanding of all the benchmarks for the other drives in our test group, but obviously it was actually a huge strength for the Intel drive.

There is no question, the Intel X25-M MLC-based SSD completely out-classes all other MLC-based product in this test sample and it even ran circles around the expensive SLC-based OCZ drive.  We'll get more into pricing shortly, but the OCZ standard SLC drive currently retails for about $100 more than the Intel MLC-based SSD that also offers an additional 16GB of available storage.
 
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Power Consumption

Although hard drives don't typically draw huge amounts of power, we still wanted to see how this new breed of SSDs compared in terms of power consumption. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test system was consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and under full load on a secondary test drive. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the drives alone.

Power Consumption
As Reported by an Extech Power Analyzer





The Intel X25-M 80GB SSD falls in line with the other Solid State Disks in our test group but it does draw a little more power on read workloads and a little less power on write workloads, versus the other SSDs we tested.
 
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Performance Analysis and Conclusion

Performance Summary: A quick run-through of our benchmark data showed us that this new Intel Solid State Disk, in terms of standard synthetic benchmarks, offered exactly what its specifications claimed it would.  Read bandwidth of 225MB/sec and Write bandwidth of 74MB/sec on average was measured in a number of tests and the Intel SSD showed itself to be roughly twice as fast in terms of read performance and about on par with other MLC-based SSDs, in terms of write performance.  However, when it came to specific application usage models within our PCMark Vantage testing, the Intel X25-M SSD showed a performance lead well in excess of its specifications and what we saw in our synthetic benchmark testing.  In many cases the Intel SSD was two to three times faster than the fastest competitive SSDs in our test group.




What can we say about this new Solid State Disk product offering from Intel that our test data hasn't already clearly stated for you?  About the only aspect of Intel's new X25-M series of drives that we haven't covered is price.  Intel notes that the X25-M will begin shipping to OEMs and channel partners this week, so retail availability is imminent.  MSRP is set at $595 for quantities of up to 1K units.  Comparatively, competitive MLC-based product at 64GB densities, retail in the $200 range. If we look at it from a cost per GB standpoint, Intel's product weighs in at $7.43/GB for their 80GB drive, while competitive offerings from the likes of OCZ, Super Talent and others drop in at a little over $3 per Gig.  In short, Intel's new SSD is twice as expensive as the competitions, at least at launch time, though it wouldn't surprise us at all if street prices started falling in the next quarter or so.

Regardless, at least against the backdrop of the current competitive landscape, you certainly get what you pay for with Intel's new SSD.  Though it might be twice the price, in many applications, it offers more than 2X the performance of any other MLC solid state disk that we've tested to date.  Intel's most significant product differentiation, that can't be duplicated directly by any other manufacturer (though similar solutions could be developed obviously), is their proprietary adaptive memory controller that conditions the drive on the fly as new workloads are presented to it.  As we discussed, though Solid State Flash Drives are inherently fast with read performance, write performance has historically been a major bottleneck and compensating for NAND Flash erase/re-write latencies has become the holy grail, so to speak, for driving SSD technology into a wider range of storage applications.  As we were able to observe in our testing, Intel certainly seems to have a much better handle on this problem than other manufacturers at this point in time.

With that said, you can be sure other memory and storage manufacturers will continue to release faster and higher density product in the weeks ahead that will likely offer better competition for Intel's new line of high performance SSDs, and we're expecting new releases to arrive here shortly.  We'll provide continuing coverage of the SSD product landscape of course and keep you up to speed with what's HOT in Solid State Disk technologies.  In the mean time, in typical fashion, Intel has stepped up big behind SSD technology and once again upped the ante with a breakout product that literally leaves the current competitors folding at the table, at least for this round.

  

  • Fastest 225MB/s average reads
  • Blazing fast <1ms random access 
  • Fastest real-world write performance we've seen to date
  • Generally 2 - 3X faster than other MLC-based SSDs
  • 3-year warranty
  • Expensive versus other MLC SSD drives
  • Much more expensive versus standard hard drives
  • Max 80GB density currently


 



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