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OCZ Vertex 2 Pro, Sandforce Powered SSD Preview
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Date: Feb 02, 2010
Section:Storage
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction and Specifications

What's this? Yet another SSD product from OCZ Technology? It's not like the company doesn't already have a staggeringly large selection of solid state drives of both the MLC and SLC varieties, with various controllers under the hood and even a RAID-driven, PCI Express based line-up. You wouldn't want another SSD from OCZ to choose from, with yet another Flash controller player to consider, now would you? Of course you would. The general consensus in the market right now is that both the consumer and OEM/embedded arenas can't get enough of solid state storage technology nor can it evolve quickly enough.   

What's interesting about NAND Flash storage is that the primary limiting factors, density and cost, are polar opposite to what the spinning hard drive technologies offer.  Hard drive technology has driven cost down to the pennies-per-gigabyte range and capacities are about as large as most end-users could want, though there's always a demand for more in the data center and perhaps in the enthusiast fringe. Conversely, SSDs have afforded an order of magnitude speed boost in most applications where hard drives have reached saturation, though there's always that insatiable need for more speed. 

Intel has arguably held the pole position in terms of SSD performance with their X25-M series of drives, but OCZ and others have had their sights set on knocking Intel from their perch for a while now. Though fledgling SSD technologies are still very much maturing in terms of cost and density, performance increases are coming along at regular intervals, so we knew it would be only a matter of time before there was a serious contender. OCZ's first gen Vertex series SSD came close to catching the X25-M's performance but the second coming of the Vertex, aptly dubbed the Vertex 2 Pro, is what OCZ claims will put them squarely in the lead.  In the pages that follow, we'll cover the performance profile of the new OCZ Vertex 2 Pro series 100GB SSD, though we should caution that we'll be showcasing an early engineering sample and these drives won't be available for about a month or two.  Regardless, we'll profile the performance to come with this new SSD and the NAND Flash controller newcomer, Sandforce.


OCZ Vertex 2 Pro Series 100GB MLC SSD - Sandforce 1500 under the hood

OCZ Vertex 2 Pro Series SATA II SSD
Specifications and Features
Specifications:
  • 100GB capacity (93.1GB usable)
  • 50GB, 100GB, 200GB and 400GB available
  • MLC NAND
  • Slim 2.5" Design
  • Power Consumption: TBD
  • MTBF: TBD
  • Warranty: TBD
 100GB SSD Max Performance:
  • Read: Up to 280MB/s
  • Write: Up to 270MB/s
  • IOPs (4K random write): 19000
  • Seek Time: < 1ms
  • Operating Temp: 0C ~ 70C
  • Storage Temp: -45C ~ +85C
  • RAID Support
  • Shock Resistant: 1500G



The OCZ Vertex 2 Pro series of SSDs will come in a few different capacities with sizes ranging from 50GB to 400GB.  We're specifically taking a look at the 100GB version here today.  It's an MLC-based drive with very robust looking read and write bandwidth up to 280MB/s and 270MB/s, respectively.  4K random write performance, which is sort of the Achille's heel of the modern SSD, is rated at 19000 IOPs.  All told, on paper the Vertex 2 Pro's specs are impressive.  Let's get a closer look at the hardware under its metal casing. 
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The Vertex 2 Pro Series and Sandforce 1500

To look at the new Vertex 2 Pro SSD from OCZ Technologies, is like looking at most standard SSDs on the market these days.  Though Intel used a thinner metal casing with plastic stiffener brackets on its line of product, this OCZ Vertex 2 Pro has a straight-forward metal case like 99% of the SSDs on the market today, other than Intel's.

 


OCZ Vertex 2 Pro Series 100GB SSD - click for full res

The real secret sauce of the Vertex 2 Pro can be seen under the hood. This SSD is comprised of 64Gb Micron NAND chips that operate at 166 MT/s.  There are 16 of these chips on-board, 8 each on the top and bottom sides of the PCB.  Other than the small 8-pin configuration EEPROM and one tiny 6-pin logic device, the Sandforce 1500 controller is the only other piece of pure CMOS silicon on board.  The rest of the bill of materials consists of passive or electromechanical components (connectors etc).  What really sets the Vertex 2 Pro apart from many current SSDs on the market is its Sandforce 1500 NAND Flash controller.  Let's drop down for a look at this relatively new technology for SSDs.


Sandforce 1500 Series SSD Processor Block Diagram

That Sandforce 1500 series controller is a rather complex device and though we won't dive too deeply into the architecture, in consideration of your eyes possibly glossing over, we will point out a couple of key characteristics of Sandforce technology that sets it apart from other SSD NAND Flash controllers on the market.  As you can see, this is a complex system on a chip of sorts that has a number of functional blocks beyond its Flash and SATA interfaces and processor core.  Some of the microengines here that merit discussion are the DuraWrite and RAISE error correction blocks. 

DuraWrite and AES 128 Encryption Technology -
"Write amplifcation" is a term that is used to describe what a typical SSD has to go through in order to write data to a drive. In general, the SSD has to read a 128K block of data into system memory, modify the content that needs to be written to that block and then write that entire 128K block back to the drive.  This scenario holds true even for something as small as 4KB of data.  This read-modify-write scenario takes its toll on the write endurance of the average SSD reducing its functional life dramatically.  Typical write amplification for legacy SSDs has been in the neighborhood of up to 20X, which is a ton of wasted write operations and the reason why elaborate "garbage collection" algorithms have been developed to clean up data on SSDs after use so that they maintain performance. 

 
Image courtesy:  Sandforce, Inc.

Intel claims their controller offers a 1.1X write amplification factor, while Sandforce claims their DuraWrite technology brings that down to .5X or less than half that of Intel.  This also negates the need for on-board DRAM cache for a Sandforce-based SSD, because caching write data in order to alleviate amplification is no longer required.  Finally, Sandforce claims that write endurance of an SSD based on their controller will have SLC-like endurance of up to 5 years, once again due to their proprietary technology that minimizes write amplification dramatically.  We should also note that Sandforce-based SSDs like OCZ's Vertex 2 Pro that we're previewing for you here today, also support the TRIM functionality offered in Windows 7.

Finally, you'll also note that there is an encryption engine block detailed in the block diagram above.  Essentially, data is encrypted and decrypted on the fly, making it more secure from hackers, versus the simple password protection techniques on other SSDs.  This engine, Sandforce reports, also completely offloads the host processor of any workload related to its security algorithm and we're sure is combined with some sort of compression algorithm (like Deflate for example) which also keeps data transfer rates up.


RAISE Technology -
RAISE is an acroym that Sandforce coined that stands for "Redundant Array of Silicon Elements".  Essentially, the technology, in combination with Sandforce error detection and correction (ECC) algorithms, combines RAID-like redundancy without the requirement of writing data twice to the drive.  The company doesn't explain how this is achieved but they do go on to claim that "RAISE technology reduces the probability of a single unrecoverable read error by 100 times to 0.001%. Applying that same formula, the failure rate of the SSD drops from 12.0% to a mere 0.13%, nearly 100 times lower. 

In short, though it's a bit of a mystery how they achieve this, once again with these proprietary technologies from Sandforce, MLC-based NAND Flash SSD reliability is increased by orders of magnitude supposedly.  We'll touch on this again later...

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Test System and IOMeter

Our Test Methodologies:  Under each test condition, the Solid State Drives tested here were installed as secondary volumes in our testbed, 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 Vantage 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.

HotHardware Test System
Intel Core i7 Powered

Processor -
Motherboard -

Video Card -
Memory -
Audio -

Storage -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Core i7 965

Gigabyte GA-EX58-Extreme
(X58 Express Chipset)

GeForce GTX 280
6144MB Kingston HyperX DDR3-1333

Integrated on board

Western Digital Raptor - OS
OCZ Vertex 2 Pro 100GB
OCZ Vertex 120GB
Intel X25-M Gen 1 80GB
Intel X25-M Gen 2 160GB

OS -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -
Video Drivers
-
Relevant Software:
Window 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Intel 9.1.0.1012
DirectX 10
NVIDIA ForceWare v195.62

Benchmarks Used:
HD Tach 3.0.1.0
ATTO ver 2.34
PCMark Vantage
SiSoftware Sandra XII SP2
IOMeter 2008
CrystalDiskMark

 IOMeter
 I/O Subsystem Measurement To


The IOMeter Question:
As we noted in a previous SSD round-up article, though IOMeter is clearly thought of as a well respected industry standard drive benchmark, we're not completely comfortable with it for testing SSDs.  The fact of the matter is, though our actual results with IOMeter appear to scale properly, 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 for the average end user.  That said, we do think IOMeter is a gauge for relative available bandwidth with a given storage solution.

In the following tables, 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.



Its surprising to see where the Vertex 2 Pro dropped in, in comparison to our reference drives. In this benchmark, it falls in the middle of the pack and is outpaced by both of the Intel SSDs. Also, the average response time of the Vertex 2 Pro trails every other drive in this comparison.  However, if you look at the bandwidth numbers, the Vertex 2 Pro drive is about on par with Intel's first gen X25-M SSD.  Also, what you'll see in the pages ahead is that this performance profile shake out the same under more real-world test conditions.

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SiSoft SANDRA Testing

Next we fired up SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. Here, we used the Physical Disk test suite and provided the results from our comparison SSDs. The benchmarks were run without formatting and both read and write performance metrics are detailed below. We also included SANDRA's graph so you are able to see how the drive performs over time and the length of the entire disk volume, along with the average rated result.

 SiSoft SANDRA 2009
 Synthetic Benchmarks

OCZ Vertex 2 Pro Read Performance
 


OCZ
Vertex 2 Pro Write Performance
 


Intel 34nm X25-M Gen 2 160GB Read
 


Intel X25-M Gen 2 160GB Write
 


OCZ Vertex Series 120GB Read


OCZ Vertex Series 120GB Write


As far as SANDRA is concerned, the new OCZ Vertex 2 Pro is about as fast as the current generation of top-shelf SSDs, like Intel's X25-M or OCZ's original Vertex drive, in terms of read performance.  However, from a write bandwidth perspective at 220MB+/sec, the Vertex 2 Pro drive is measurably faster than virtually all standard MLC-based SATA SSDs we've seen on the market thus far.

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CrystalDiskMark Performance

CrystalDiskMark is a new synthetic benchmark we've started looking at that tests both sequential as well as random small and large file transfers.  It does a nice job of providing a quick look at best and worst case scenarios with regard to SSD performance, best case being large sequential transfers and worse case being small, random 4K transfers. 

CrystalDiskMark Benchmarks
Synthetic File Transfer Tests


OCZ Vertex 2 Pro - 100GB MLC SSD


Intel X-25M G2 - 160GB MLC SSD

 
Intel X-25M G1 - 80GB MLC SSD
 
OCZ Vertex 120GB MLC SSD


The OCZ Vertex 2 Pro punched out the fastest overall results in the CrystalDiskMark test suite, with a much more balanced read/write performance profile.  Though sequential read speeds were a tad slower than the Intel X25-M series drives and OCZ's own legacy Vertex series, if you look at 512K random reads, the Vertex 2 Pro offered better results versus even Intel's Gen 2 SSD.  From a write performance point of view, the two OCZ Vertex drives offer up to 2x the write bandwidth of the Intel SSDs, with the Vertex 2 Pro offering great small transfer random write performance of 70+MB/s.
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HD Tach v3 Performance

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
http://www.simplisoftware.com


OCZ Vertex  2 Pro 100GB


Intel 34nm X25-M Gen 2 160GB


 
Intel X25-M Gen 1 80GB

 
OCZ Verex Series 120GB



In HD Tach testing, the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro once again dominated the rest of the pack in terms of write performance. It was actually quite impressive to see just how linear and flat the performance of the drive is with respect to its read throughput, which is basically identical.  At least within the scope of our HD Tach scores, the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro shows that write performance limitations of SSDs can be addressed successfully with the a sophisticated Flash controller engine and an intelligent algorithm.  In terms of read requests, the Sandforce 1500-infused OCZ Vertex 2 Pro puts up best-of-class throughput competitive with Intel's latest gen 2 offering.

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PCMark Vantage

Next we ran the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro 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 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 reasonably illustrate the performance profile of SSDs in an end-user/consumer PC usage model.


Interestingly, for starters, there was a dramatic performance variation between the 80GB first gen Intel X25-M SSD and the second gen 160GB X25-M.  For a bit of background, we always let the test system settle at idle on the desktop before running this test, so that disk activity can be minimized before we engage the benchmark.  This also allows the SSDs that support it to work with the Windows 7 TRIM functionality to clean up the drive (although it was already blank), maintaining its performance, even though we are starting from a fresh, OS-level format each time.  Since the 80GB gen 1 Intel X25-M SSDs don't support TRIM and a recent firmware update added trim an enhanced the performance of the Gen 2 drive, this likely somewhat explains the delta in performance between the two.  Beyond that, the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro Sandforce 1500-based SSD shows a performance result somewhere in between the 80GB first generation Intel SSD and the 160GB second generation drive. However, we'll point out that the tests from this subset of PCMark Vantage are comprised of largely read intensive requests.  Let's take a look at a more balanced set of read/write transactions next.

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PCMark Vantage (Continued)

Our next series of Vantage tests will stress the current weakness of most SSDs, that being write performance. Applications like video editing and recording are not what we would call a strong suit for the average SSD, due to 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 NAND flash.  SSD manufacturers are getting better at this, but still today, there are issues to contend with.

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


Here, the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro shows exactly what we expected to see, since it's significantly faster with general write performance.  In the Movie Player and Media Center tests, the Vertex 2 Pro surges past the Intel X25-M Gen 2 drive by a significant margin, but also falls behind in read-intensive scenarios like application loading and Media Player.

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File Transfer Tests

Our final series of tests are what you might call more "crude measurements" in that we simply fired up our trusty stop-watch and measured the time it took to complete a copy and paste command of a single large file or a bunch of large files from one storage volume in our test system to another.

** Please note that we utilized a Fusion-io ioDrive card as our source drive in some of the following tests, to read files from or copy files to, for our read and write measurements of all reference products in this test.  This affords us the luxury of much higher available bandwidth from the source or target drive, such that it would not be the limiting factor in a given test condition.  This test condition provides an equal playing field for all product but should be considered a "best case" usage model in that the target or destination drive each SSD is writing to or reading from, is dramatically faster than any spinning hard drive on the market today, in most cases, orders of magnitude faster.

Bulk File Transfer Tests - Read/Write Performance
Custom File Transfers Measured




Interestingly, in our multi-file transfer test, the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro is easily able to keep pace with the Intel SSDs for read performance, when copying several 100MB+ files from each of their volumes to the target Fusion-io drive.  Where the Vertex 2 Pro and Sandforce 1500 controller really excel, however, is with respect to write performance.  Here the Vertex 2 Pro has an almost 5 second advantage, or about 29% or so, versus the 160GB Intel X25-M Gen 2 SSD.



Here, with just one large file but roughly the same amount of data, things tighten up a bit for the 160GB Intel SSD, but the Sandforce-based OCZ Vertex 2 Pro still outpaces it by 2.5 seconds or about 15%.

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Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The OCZ Vertex 2 Pro series SSD performed extremely well in our testing. Throughout the various benchmark runs, we saw maximum read speeds in excess of 225MB/s while maximum write speeds also reached 225+MB/s of throughput.  This SSD displayed a significantly more balanced performance profile that was largely unaffected by use over time, though we do have one caveat to report unfortunately.  At this point in time we feel the Vertex 2 Pro isn't quite yet ready for prime time, though of course OCZ isn't shipping them at retail yet.  In fact, we "bricked" a couple of these drives with the included "Toolbox" software that came with them and were unable to restore them to working condition. We've reached out to OCZ for follow-up on this and do feel confident they can work out these issues with Sandforce before they make the drives available on the market.  We're hopeful anyway, because other than the rather significant snag of these drives going south for some strange reason, the Vertex 2 Pro is quite literally the fastest SATA-based MLC SSD we've tested to date.  Update 1:31PM EST:  It turns out OCZ was able to restore the drives back to working order again, which is a good sign.

 

The underlying technologies that comprise the OCZ Vertex 2 Pro SSD are perhaps what's most interesting about the product.  In fact, we easily could see OCZ going full-bore with Sandforce NAND Flash controller technology across a number of product lines.  What's most impressive about the product is that the Sandforce 1500 seems to handily address some of the significant intrinsic performance limitations of NAND Flash-based SSD designs that are on the market today.  Its management of write amplification and data maintenance of the drive are unmatched in the industry thus far, at least versus the SSD products we've looked at to date, which are many and varied. 

There are a few variables that hold us back from passing on a final judgment of OCZ Vertex 2 Pro however, namely a more concrete MSRP for the product and its availability timeline, along with the final revision of its firmware and related Toolbox software, if in fact this will actually ship with the product to end customers.  We're hearing the 100GB version of the drives will drop in at around $450 - $500, which is a bit of a premium versus OCZ's previous generation Indilinx-based Vertex drives that retail for $399 or so for a 128GB variant. If you consider the performance upside and the long term maintenance of that performance by the Sandforce controller, a 20 - 25% price premium seems reasonable.  Regardless, we're more interested in seeing this product hit retail-ready status for OCZ.  The promise of performance it offers, at least tentatively we can say, looks to take on Intel's best SSD offering and beat it nicely in many real-world usage models.

  

  

  • Superb performance
  • Great sustained performance with maintenance algos
  • Claimed increased durability, reliability

 

  • Will likely be relatively pricey
  • Preliminary firmware and availability

 



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