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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  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe everything regarding the 25nm issue has been resolved? OCZ has initiated an exchange program and is covering all associated costs for users that were affected.

    I'm still curious to look into the behavior of 25nm NAND however by the time I got back from MWC it looks like the bulk of what needed to happen regarding the 25nm issue already happened.

    Is there a remaining aspect of the issue that hasn't been addressed that you'd like me to pursue?

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Hi Anand,

    Thanks for replying. Just to be clear, what I've been expecting is for you to write a news item or an article about OCZ and 25nm SSDs. It seems you thought I was asking for you fix the problem (it is not your problem and it isn't you who was supposed to fix it).

    I still don't understand why all the review sites were silent even after the OCZ 25nm drives hit retail. Was I the only one excited about the new NAND flash tech, and itching to read an in depth review/analysis. Some time passed and some people started complaining that their 25nm V2s were somewhat slower than what reviews (and the packaging) were promising…still no in depth look at 25nm tech at that point.

    The jmicron issue was resolved eventually as well but there were a lot of articles written about it.

    I’m still stumped as to how hard it is to find a proper review about the 1st ever consumer 25nm SSD to hit retail (the OCZ V2).
    Reply
  • m.amitava - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I am sure Anand has quite a lot of pull with OCZ and I believe users who have been stranded with 25nm drives will thank him for investing his time in sorting out the issue rather than writing on it....

    would like to hear your POV though Anand, so far you haven't given us your take on it....
    Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    -- Is there a remaining aspect of the issue that hasn't been addressed that you'd like me to pursue?

    Absolutely!!! Not so much the OCZ nonsense, but rather the impact we can expect on SSD acceptance and viability with 25nm parts. IIRC, IMFT NAND at 25nm has/will have ECC on die to deal with some of the issue.

    What's not clear is whether an SSD can be built at 25nm that ends up being as "good" as one at 32/34nm at the same price point. We may have hit a corner case in Moore's Law: the reduction in price at 25nm may not be sufficient to overcome both the erasure and electrical issues which present at 25nm. The OCZ fix was to replace larger die with smaller die to get back channels. That's gotta hurt the profit equation. And this doesn't fix the erasure issue.

    In other words, there's a whole lot to be delved into with regard to 25nm impact on SSD. A whole lot.
    Reply
  • semo - Friday, March 4, 2011 - link

    "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe everything regarding the 25nm issue has been resolved?"

    I've just done a quick search on newegg for a Vertex 2 and I still can't figure out at a glance which are the nerfed 25nm drives and which aren't. So the bait-and-switch games is still on as far as I can tell.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    It really boils down to the performance vs. reliability debate. The Vertex 3 is overall a faster drive (assuming you're not doing much in the way of incompressible writes), however it's unclear how much OCZ and SF have improved their reliability testing and validation. If the 510 is close enough in performance and can boast the same sort of reliability that the original X25-M did, then it may be a viable alternative for some users who aren't as interested in absolute performance but want a product that has gone through Intel's validation/testing.

    With the X25-M the performance gap was too great to really value the drive over the SF-1200 based offerings. The 510 is much more competitive, although our recommendation for pure performance is still obviously the Vertex 3.

    As I mentioned in the conclusion, if OCZ can ramp and ship the Vertex 3 with a better reliability track record than the Vertex 2 (not that the latter was bad, it just wasn't quite as good as the X25-M) then this becomes a non-issue. The way I see it is this: the 510 pressures OCZ to work on validation and QA testing, while the Vertex 3 forces Intel to take performance much more seriously. Both are very important to have in the market.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • lyeoh - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Hi Anand, have you noticed any issues with hibernate for SSDs? Being able to hibernate is rather important for many mobile users.

    There are some people complaining that hibernate stopped working when they switched to their SSD drive, whereas others say they don't have probs.

    As for reliability, how much more reliable are Intel really anyway? They did have problems with their previous drives too.
    Reply
  • epicsnackus - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I have hibernated my laptop with Intel G2 160GB drive every day for more than a year, with no issue Reply
  • jimhsu - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I do have an issue with sleep though on an Intel SSD. On resume after sleep, the drive errors with KERNEL_NONPAGED bluescreens. Does not occur with hibernate. Any idea what is going on? Reply
  • aarste - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Not tried Hibernate, but sleep is working fine on my Intel X-25M 80GB (I put the PC to sleep every night), so the BSOD may be something else entirely. Reply

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