Intel’s SSD 510 Powered by Marvell

At IDF 2008 Intel presented a session that discussed its SSDs and what made them better than the competition. Allow me to quote, ahem, myself:

“Intel's SSD design attempts to be different in the three key areas that determine SSD performance: Flash, Firmware and Controller.”

and

“The Firmware and Flash-to-SATA controller are both made by Intel, whereas most SSD makers use off the shelf components and FPGAs for their designs. Intel claims that its expertise in microprocessor and platform design allows for much higher levels of performance out of its SSDs.”

Now allow me to contrast what Intel told me at IDF 2008 with the reality of today in 2011.

The “G3” we’ve all been waiting for will still come. That’ll be Intel’s first 25nm SSD and it should carry specs similar to what we already published. However the focus of the drive will be the mainstream. To take care of the high end Intel created a new drive: the Intel SSD 510 (codename Elmcrest) and it uses a Marvell 9174 6Gbps controller.


Intel's SSD 510 based on Marvell's 88SS9174 controller

Everyone has access to the same NAND that Intel does, but in the past it was controller microarchitecture and firmware that gave Intel the edge. With the 510, the advantage has been reduced to just firmware.

The Marvell 9174 is the same controller Micron uses in its C400 and the same controller in Corsair’s Performance Series 3 SSDs. In fact, I recently received a Corsair P3. Pop off the lid and you’ll see the very same controller Intel is using in the 510:


Corsair's P3 SSD, note the controller similarity

Talk to SandForce and they’ll tell you that the controller itself doesn’t matter - it’s the firmware that matters the most. That’s definitely true to an extent, although I can’t help but feel like you need both microarchitecture and firmware to get the absolute best performance.

Although the controller is sourced from Marvell the firmware and validation are entirely Intel’s. As a result you shouldn't expect the 510 to perform identically to other Marvell based drives.

Intel is also quick to point out that despite using a 3rd party controller, the 510 has to go through Intel’s rigorous validation and testing. Reliability and quality should be no different than any other Intel SSD.

I asked Intel if this was a permanent thing - if we should always expect it to license controllers from third parties for its high performance SSDs. Intel responded by saying that the Marvell controller made sense given the hole in its roadmap, however this is not a long term strategy. While we may see more Intel SSDs based on 3rd party controllers, Marvell’s controller is not a permanent resident in Intel’s SSD roadmap - it’s just here on a student visa.

Paired with the Marvell controller is a 128MB Hynix DDR3-1333 SDRAM. This is technically the largest DRAM to appear on an Intel SSD to date. Even the old X25-M G2 only had a 32MB DRAM on board.

The 510 currently only supports 34nm Intel NAND rated at 5,000 p/e cycles. There are two capacities offered: a 120GB and a 250GB. Intel sent us the 250GB version which has 256GB of 34nm Intel NAND spread out across 16 NAND packages. That’s 16GB per package and 4GB per 34nm die.

Remember the GiB/GB conversion math that’s used to mask spare area in SSDs. With 256GiB of NAND on board and 250GB of storage area promised by the drive, there’s actually only 232.8GiB of user addressable space on the 250GB drive. This puts the percentage of spare area at 9%, an increase over the 6.8% spare area common on the X25-M.

The 120GB drive has even more spare area than the 250GB drive. With 128GB of 34nm NAND on board, the 120GB Intel SSD 510 has 111GiB of user addressable space for a total spare area of 12.7%.

Intel’s rated performance for the SSD 510 is as follows:

Intel SSD Comparison
  X25-M G2 160GB SSD 510 120GB SSD 510 250GB
NAND Capacity 160GB 128GB 256GB
User Capacity 149GB 111GB 232GB
Random Read Performance Up to 35K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS
Random Write Performance Up to 8.6K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS
Sequential Read Performance Up to 250MB/s Up to 400MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 500MB/s (6Gbps)
Sequential Write Performance Up to 100MB/s Up to 210MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 315MB/s (6Gbps)
Price $404 $284 $584

Ironically enough the SSD 510 fixes the X25-M’s poor sequential performance but trades it for lower random performance. On paper the 510’s random performance is decidedly last-generation. And honestly the rated performance of the 120GB isn’t particularly interesting. The 120GB drive will have fewer NAND die available, and SSDs achieve their high performance by striping data requests across as many NAND die as possible - hence the lower performance specs.

Pricing is set at $284 for the 120GB drive and $584 for the 250GB drive. Intel’s SSD 510 is available today and Newegg marks the two up to $315 and $615 respectively.

The Bundle

Intel sent over the desktop installation kit bundle for the 510. Included in the box is a 3.5" adapter kit, a 6Gbps SATA cable (3Gbps cables of sufficient quality should work fine though) and a 4-pin molex to SATA power adapter:

The 510 also works with Intel's SSD Toolbox, which makes tasks like secure erase super simple:

Introduction A Word on Reliability & The Test
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  • Golgatha - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Basically you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between sequentially reading 10MB of data or less at 215MB/s (Velociraptors in RAID0) vs 320MB/s (my Crucial C300 256MB average speed on a PCIe4x, SATA3, ASUS add-in card), hence the reason that sequential performance of SSDs doesn't matter much to me anymore.


    I'd also like to add that you will however most certainly notice the difference of 3.15MB/s of random R/W performance my RAID0 Velociraptors put out versus the random R/W performance of pretty much any SSD. SSDs make a huge amount of sense as an OS and applications drive.
    Reply
  • EddyKilowatt - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    "...the last thing SSDs are lacking is speed..."

    Amen. Ninety percent of us still have 3 GB SATA and are just waiting for the 25 nm devices to do their thing to the $/GB on more prosaic drives
    Reply
  • mgl888 - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I had high expectations from Intel.. now I'm a little disappointed.
    As the article said, random read is MOST important for a boot drive. Surely Intel should know this?
    Reply
  • critical_ - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I'm not sure I agree.

    1. The SSD market still has a lot of growth ahead of it. Price per GB is the current issue and may be the new "performance per watt" buzz word in this space. Case in point, when I can grab a cheap Dell server for $350 and average notebooks are advertised everyday for $300-$600, are people really going to spend $300-$600+ on an SSD? If it was a much cheaper option then many would go with it.

    2. Synthetic vs. Real-world. Synthetic benchmarks are great for bragging on the various overclocking forums but most of us get work done in the real-world. This is no different than people who tune cars for 1/4 mile races but must transport the car on a flat-bed carrier. For some this is a perfectly great trade-off for bragging rights but many of us prefer to get 90% of the 1/4 mile performance and be able to drive the car back and forth to a weekend outing. My point is that in real-world benchmarks there may be some minor deficiencies but will 95% of users notice? I doubt it.

    3. I put an Intel X-25M G2 160GB SSD in my father's quad-core desktop that he uses for Photoshop work after listening to many months of complaints that his system was too slow. After the swap, he loves the performance and I love the fact that I'm no longer fielding "it's too slow" complaints. This was the best money I've spent in recent memory but the price is still an issue for most people.

    4. Would a user like my father noticed a difference between the X-25M and either a 510 or Vertex 3? I doubt it. Besides we'd have to get him a SATA3 motherboard or an add-in card. Again, it's a price issue.

    5. Not too long ago the must-have upgrade was adding RAM to a Windows machine. These days 3-8GB systems are almost the norm so the must-have upgrade is an SSD if a user can stomach the cost. Head on over to NewEgg and read the reviews of "value" SSDs and you'll get an idea of the disappointment for some people who transitioned from HDDs to SSDs in both desktops and laptops. The drives in this segment aren't changing the user experience as dramatically as those ponying up for the high-end devices. Then there is the issue of lack of TRIM support, 4K issues, firmware upgrades destroying data, and the list goes on. The segment needs to addressed by Intel.

    6. Finally, hybrids. We see the Intel Z68 will support SSD caching along with higher-end stuff from Adaptec or HighPoint's RocketHybrid controllers trying to get the best of both SSDs and HDDs. Could this be a game-changer? Possibly.

    The points that I'm making come down to both real-world performance and market segments. The SSD market would benefit from a better stragety on the entry-level and mid-range markets the way ATI and nVidia have done things. Whoever brings the price down to grab the majority of users will eventually win a good chunk of business. With all that aside, as it stands the 510 is fine for the types of loads I'd put on an SSD as a power user so I'm happy to trade a bit of real-world performance for Intel's reliability.
    Reply
  • landerf - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Well that was disappointing. Unless intel prices themselves under OCZ they may do very poorly with this drive. Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    The sad thing is that they won't. They always have their "conroe" moment and then they sink up their product in the next generations but they still come out ahead. Even their Prescott cores did very well when they shouldn't have. Reply
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Yeah that was my fault. I shouldn't have bought a Prescott Reply
  • m.amitava - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I am really the biggest fan of Anand and his team (used to bypass my company firewall and risk losing my job just to read all the stuff here..) but it does seem like Anand is trying to smooth over the 510's seriously non-competitive random performance....

    IMO it showed badly enough that I finally decided to sign up and post a comment...

    I hope I am mistaken...
    Reply
  • Sigwulff - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Well isn't it the old debate regarding synthetic vs. real-world tests? I'll admit it looked bleak for the random parts, but looking at the heavy and light workload 510 looked somewhat shinier...

    I was 100% sure on the Vertex 3, but presently I'll have to wait and see about the pricing when it lands here in little Denmark :-)

    Btw, mentioning the bundle you completely overlooked the very nice cabinet sticker Intel included. I would like some tests about glue adherency, how envious your friends look when they see the sticker on your pc-cabinet etc. :-)
    ok just kidding, very nice and informative review! (why we love Anand so much :-)
    Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    +1

    I'm still disappointed that Anand hasn't covered the OCZ Vertex 2 "25nm version" con. This is a consumer rights issue and should take precedence over any other development of a technical nature.
    Reply

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