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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  • lyeoh - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Oh yeah, thanks for the max latency figures. They're very useful.

    The G2's max of 900ms is quite a long time. Nearly a second! What are the max latencies for say a velociraptor in similar tests? I know the theoretical figures would be based on seek time + RPM but often theory is different from practice.

    I find it interesting that the Crucial RealSSD C300 does worse than the Intel SSD 510 in the "Anand Storage Bench 2011- Heavy Workload" despite getting better numbers in the random and sequential tests. Any idea why this would be so? Poorer max latency?
    Reply
  • jimhsu - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Poorer sequential performance I guess. The C300 (which I just got) is very fast, but the sequential perf of the 510 is simply better, which impacts a lot of the sequential portion of the workload test. Random performance in typical desktop models has reached somewhat of a plateau, particularly since most applications currently out there are optimized for the dog-slow random performance of consumer hard drives. Reply
  • Creepwood - Friday, March 4, 2011 - link

    About reliability/compatibility: have you tested this drive in the new Sandy Bridge Macbook Pro? Any issues? Reply
  • davepermen - Monday, March 7, 2011 - link

    Interestingly, one of THE main performance cases is when you need to quickly write lots of stuff, like in video editing. And there, all data is at least partially compressed, so i guess there the intel will be in a better place. Reply
  • RaistlinZ - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Intel is going to have to price this thing cheaper than the Vertex 3, or any other new Sandforce SSD for that matter. They can't use performance as a selling point. I'm sure the new SF controller will offer good stability. Unless you're an Intel fanboy I don't see any reason to get the 510 over the Vertex 3, unless they price it much lower. Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    This is an Atom alright!

    I think the conclusion, although critical in places was overall mild. “It looks like we may have hit the upper limit of what we need from 4KB random write performance”… Yeah, in the consumer/budget space. But what consumer/budget computer user would buy a 250GB SSD. I’ve managed to convince a few of my clients to go with an “expensive upgrade” and in the end they’ve been extremely happy… In those cases I’ve only installed 64GB drives.

    At the moment SSDs are NOT mainstream and it’s mostly the enthusiast and pro crowd that will be buying consumer grade SSDs. I’ll be using my SSD for VMs for testing and studying and I do a lot of heavy random IO operations.

    For a drive as big and as expensive as the 250GB 510, I expect much better across-the-board performance.
    Reply
  • TSnor - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Hi, the article states "~900ms write operation, the 510 keeps the worst case latency to below 400ms. The Vertex 3 by comparison has a max write latency of anywhere from 60ms - 350ms"

    microseconds are usually abbreviated us, where the u has a funny tail on it. (the u is greek for something)
    ms usually means milliseconds. I usually type 'mics' when on the keyboard and reserve the funny u for when handwriting. example, a good SSD write takes less then 100 mics.

    saying something is around 900 ms means it takes about a second.
    Reply
  • epicsnackus - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    The article is correct, the numbers are really in milliseconds. The microsecond numbers you're thinking of are 1) best case, and 2) usually reads Reply
  • Chloiber - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    "Write speed with fully incompressible data is easily a victory for the SF-2200 based OCZ Vertex 3."

    I think you meant fully compressible?
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Fixed! Thank you :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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