Hands on with Intel's new Cherryville 520 SSD

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Intel on Monday started shipping its fastest enterprise-class solid-state drive (SSD), the 520 Series. It’s the first Intel SSD to use the SandForce (now LSI) SFI-2281 NAND flash controller, which promises 500MBps-plus performance.

“We believe high-RPM hard drives are dead,” said Troy Winslow, director of product marketing at Intel’s Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group. “We believe both 10,000 and 15,000 rpm hard drives ... will be replaced with an SSD in the future.” He noted that “100 percent of Intel employees—85,000 people—have SSDs in their systems.”

Don’t be shocked. The price of consumer-class SSDs is expected to drop to $1 per gigabyte this year. Client-class SSDs are hovering around $2.25 to $2.50 per gigabyte.

While that’s still about ten times the cost of high-capacity SATA desktop or laptop hard disk drives, it’s only two to five times the price of a 15,000 rpm Fibre Channel or SAS drive. Considering that an SSD can offer more than 100 times the performance of a hard drive, which one would you pick?

The specs

True to its controller, the 520 Series SSD (code-named Cherryville) offers impressive performance in terms of read/writes and I/Os per second (IOps) when using a system with a SATA 3.0 6Gbps interface, Intel says. The drive can deliver up to 80,000 4K-block random write IOps and up to 50,000 4K random read IOps. With regard to sequential read/writes, it offers up to 550MBps and 520MBps, respectively, according to Intel’s specification sheet.

The read/write speeds drop significantly when used on the SATA 2.0 3Gbps interface that most PCs and laptops sport today because it creates a bottleneck. On a SATA 2.0 interface, the 520 Series offers a maximum 280MBps sequential read rate and 280MBps sequential write rate.

The 520 Series SSD is significantly faster than its predecessor, the 510 Series SSD, particularly with regard to writes; both drives support the SATA 3.0 6Gbps interface that’s becoming standard in new systems. The 510 series drive used a controller from Marvell, and it sported sequential read/write performance of up to 500MBps and 315MBps, respectively, and random read/write IOps of 20,000 and 8,000, respectively.

Compared to other SATA 3.0 drives spec-wise, Intel’s new line holds up nicely. For example, Samsung’s latest high-performance SSD, the PM830, offers sequential read/write speeds of 500MBps and 350MBps, respectively. OCZ’s Octane drive delivers up to 560MBps read performance and up to 45,000 random IOps. The Octane drive is available with a capacity of up to 1TB.

Intel’s drive also takes it easy on laptop batteries, sipping a maximum of 5.25 volts while operating and 600 milliwatts when idle, Intel says.

What’s the difference?

The older Intel 510 Series SSD has a three-year warranty, while the 520 Series has a five-year warranty. Intel said the new drive has a Mean Time Between Failures rate of 1.2 million hours, the same as the older model.

The 520 series is the first mass-produced drive by Intel using 25nm NAND flash memory; the 510 Series drive used 34nm NAND. Intel and Micron have both created NAND flash using circuitry at the 20nm level, but they’ve yet to use it in a drive. Intel said that’s coming later this year.

“We’re in mass production with 20nm NAND,” Winslow said. “That’s 16GB on a single chip and we can stack chips eight high in package, which gives you terabit in a single solution [NAND flash pack]. We will put that into SSDs later this year.”

Translation? Intel will be putting out SSDs with 1TB of capacity by the beginning of 2013, according to Winslow.

Another advantage of using more dense memory is that it helps lower the overall cost of production, which translates into somewhat lower prices. Based on 1000 unit quantities, the older 510 series SSD sold for $584 for a 250GB model and $284 for a 120GB unit. The new 520 Series SSD retails for $149 for a 60GB model, $229 for 120GB, $369 for 180GB, $509 for 240GB, and $999 for 480GB (also based on 1000 unit quantities). Broken down into price per gigabyte, which results in an apples-to-apples comparison, Intel charged $2.34 per gigabyte for the 510 series compared to the $2.12 per gigabyte price for the new drive.

Intel said it ran Sandforce’s SF-2281 NAND flash controller through its paces for the past year in an effort to avoid past problems with SSDs.

Intel also offers the 256-bit AES encryption algorithm to natively secure data as an option for buyers of the new drive.

Unlike the predecessor offering, Intel’s new SSD offers data compression, which amounts to a rate of about 60 percent for 75 percent of file types. For example, email on Microsoft Outlook can be compressed at a rate of 60 percent, Intel’s spec sheets show, while Microsoft documents can be compressed at rates of up to 85 percent.

Benchmark tests

There’s aren’t a lot of laptops out there that sport a SATA 6.0 disk drive interface, though they have started tricking out. To test the new drive, I used a 2.8GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro running OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard, with 4GB of memory.

In my first test, I used Xbench 1.3 benchmarking software. The results were good, but not Intel-spec-sheet good. Xbench showed the SSD had sequential read/write speed of 303MBps and 324MBps, respectively. It had a random read/write speed of 303MBps and 338MBps, respectively.

Blackmagic benchmarking tests revealed a maximum read rate of 456MBps and a write rate of 241MBps using 4K blocks.

In the next test, I transferred a 1.19GB file with 327 JPEG photos in just 9 seconds.

The best results appeared with boot times. I came up with a cold start-up that took just 16 seconds and a system reboot that took just 15 seconds.

Overall, Intel has come out with a very fast drive that will save your battery, save your wallet (at least in terms of SSD cost) and provide some great data protection and compression features.

[Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and healthcare IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas’s RSS feed. His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.]

This story, "Hands on with Intel's new Cherryville 520 SSD" was originally published by Computerworld.

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