Intel doubles capacity, drops price in refresh of SSD line
Intel announced today a new line of consumer-class solid state drives (SSD) based on its smallest 25 nanometer (nm) circuitry that replace the chip-maker's long-selling and most popular SSD, the X25-M.
The new 2.5-inch Intel Solid-State Drive 320 Series offers models that more than triple capacity over the X25-M and reduces price by up to 30 percent, or $100, on some models. While aimed at the laptop and desktop market, the consumer SSD has also been Intel's most popular model for servers in data centers.
The SSD 320 more than doubled sequential write speeds from Intel's second generation X25-M consumer SSD. With the 320-series, Intel has added native 128-bit AES encryption on the drives, which protects data while at rest on the NAND flash memory.
For data resiliency, Intel also included surplus NAND flash chips on the drive's board over and above the useable capacity. If the SSD's controller detects a potential chip failure, it automatically migrates data to the spare capacity.
Intel has also included small capacitors in its latest SSD, so that in the event of a power loss, data writes in progress to the NAND flash memory will be completed. "We're talking about microseconds [of power] here, not seconds," said Kishore Rao, product line manager for SSDs. "There's just enough reserve current to complete any writes that were in progress."
Michael Yang, an analyst with market research firm iSuppli, called the SSD 320 Intel's "Honda Accord." Yang noted that Intel is not the first manufacturer to offer native encryption or data redundancy features on an SSD, but he said they have added what amounts of enterprise-class features to a consumer-class SSD. For example, SSDs made with SandForce and indilinx controllers (such as those from OCZ) also come with native encryption.
"This is not a leadership product by any stretch," Yang said. "But, it's a good product, especially for a 25nm SSD."
Intel's legacy consumer SSD series, the X25-M, comes in 80GB and 160GB models. The new SSD 320 series comes in models ranging in capacities ranging from 40GB to 600GB. Intel SSD 320 prices, based on 1,000-unit quantities, are as follows: 40GB at $89; 80GB at $159; 120GB at $209; 160GB at $289; 300GB at $529 and 600GB at $1,069. All models include a limited 3-year warranty from Intel. By comparison, Intel's 160GB X25-M SSD sells for $367 on online retail sites such as Pricegrabber.com.
Gregory Wong, an analyst with Forward Insights, said while Intel has lowered its prices, it still amounts to about $1.80 a gigabyte. Wong expects mass adoption of SSDs by consumer won't accure until the price reached about $1 per gigabyte, sometime in 2012 or 2013.
According to Yang, sales of consumer SSDs last year totaled $996 million. That is expected to more than double to $2.2 billion by the end of this year, he said.
Intel SSD 320 also upgrades the serial ATA (SATA) connector from 1.5Gbps to the 3Gbps standard. The SSD produces up to 39,500 input/output operations per second (IOPS) random reads and 23,000 IOPS random writes on its highest-capacity drive model.
The new SSD doubles sequential write speeds from its second generation X25-M drive to 220MBps sequential writes. The drive simply maintains the read throughput rate of the X25-M at up to 270 MBps, the company said.
Wong said while computers coming out this year will begin incorporating the SATA III, 6Gbps interface, Intel appropriately targeted the vast majority of systems in place today that use the SATA II standard.
"The SSD's upgrades includes some enterprise features: The data loss protection, and the surplus array of NAND, which is like over provisioning to do wear leveling and such on the drive," he said. "They know it ll end up in the enterprsie as well as the consumer market."
Intel has been selling its X25-M SSD since 2008. Over the past three years, the X25-M has become the best selling SSD in retail space, according to iSuppli. Intel has sold "millions" of the drives and discovered a surprising trend: The X25-M outsold Intel's SLC-based enterprise-class SSD, the X25-E, by as much as 7:1 to 8:1 in the enterprise.
Troy Winslow, Intel's director of marketing for NAND silicon systems, said it's "fair to say" Intel's enterprise-class SLC-NAND flash SSD, the X25-E, "is going by the wayside"
"We believed SLC was required, but what we found ... through studies with Microsoft and even Seagate...is these high-compute intensive applications really don't' write as much as they thought," Winslow said. "Ninety percent of data center applications can utilize this MLC drive."
Enterprise-class SSDs have historically been produced using single-level cell (SLC) NAND flash, which places only one bit of data per silicon cell. SLC NAND can natively ensure about 10 times the number of write-erase cycles as MLC—about 100,000 writes vs. 10,000.
MLC flash allows two or three bits of data to be written per cell. However, over the past year or so, vendors have come to recognize that by using special software in the drive controllers, they're able to boost the reliability and resiliency of their consumer-class multi-level cell (MLC) SSDs to the point where enterprises have embraced them for high-performance data center servers and storage arrays. SSD vendors have begun using the term eMLC (enterprise MLC) NAND flash to describe those SSDs.
Intel's X25-M line has never been designated an eMLC drive. It just organically gained popularity in data centers, Winslow said.
Yang said most enterprises that had been purchasing SLC-based SSDs over the past few years, began switching over to MLC-based products in the third and fourth quarter of 2010, recognizing they could achieve the performance boost NAND flash offered over enterprise-class hard drives while also maintaining a high level of resiliency.
According to Intel, of the first 1 million or so X25-M SSDs it sold, users reported a total 1.4 percent failure rate. "We're not satisfied with that," Winslow said. "We expect the 320 series will have greater reliability than the X25-M, regardless of going down to the 25nm level."
Intel is putting its money where its mouth is. The company has already deployed 55,000 of its own SSDs in its data centers and in employee systems and expects that by the end of 2011, all employees will have SSDs in their computers, Winslow said.
Later this year, Intel expects to release its first eMLC drive to replace the X25-E SSD line, he said. "That will provide the performance of an SLC drive and the endurance but in a more cost effective, higher capacity MLC product," Winslow said. "From a volume perspective, we do see there are really high-write intensive, high-performance computing environments that may still need SLC, but that's in the top 10 percent of even the enterprise data center requirements."
Intel is feeding that upper 10 percent of the enterprise data center market through its joint venture with Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, which it is producing the SSD400S line of serial SCSI (SAS) SSDs, which has 6Gbit/sec. throughput—twice that of its MLC-based SATA SSDs.
Last fall, Intel and Micron's joint venture company, IM Flash Technologies (IMFT), released a 3-bit-per-cell MLC SSD also based on 25nm circuitry. The 3-bit-per-cell NAND flash chips were targeted for flash cards, USB drives and MP3 players, but not SSDs because packing 3 bits in per cell made the media inherently less reliable than 2-bit-per cell NAND flash. Three bits per cell requires higher-level management and increases the potential for cell-to-cell electron leakage. At that time, Intel unintentionally revealed through a leaked slideshow that it was planning on a complete refresh of the X25-M family using its newest lithography technique.
IMFT's 25nm 8GB die, which measures 0.35 by 0.74 in., is made up of many smaller 64Gb NAND chips. The NAND technology makes it possible to build products using half as many chips as the previous 34nm lithography technology, allowing for smaller, higher-density designs.
For example, a 256GB SSD can be built with 32 of the 8GB NAND flash dies instead of 64 dies; a 32GB smartphone needs just four dies; and a 16GB flash card requires only two. The change also cuts the overall cost to produce mobile products, which is why Intel was able to cut its prices on the latest line of SSD 320 products over the X25-M line.
Intel's NAND flash chips are small enough to fit through the hole in the middle of a compact disc, yet they pack more than 10 times the data capacity of a CD, which holds 700MB. There are inherent problems with shrinking the size of circuitry used in semi-conductors, most notably an increase in data error rates from electrons bleeding through ever-thinner silicon walls. That requires the development of more sophisticated error correction code (ECC), which Intel has on its controller.
Unlike its last SSD product release, the the 6Gbps 510 Series , Intel is sticking with its own controller in the SSD 320 series. In the 510 series, Intel used a controller from Marvell for the first time. The 510 series is being marketed at PC gamers, media creators, performance-intensive workstation users and any technology enthusiast.
At the time of the 510's release, an Intel spokeswoman explained that third party controllers are now able to meet its performance standards, when in the past they could not. "So in the future, we'll continue to use third-party controllers," Winslow said. "That doesn't mean Intel won't continue to produce its own controller too."
[Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]