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SanDisk A110 PCIe SSD: Armed With The New M.2 Edge Connector

SanDisk A110 PCIe SSD: Armed With The New M.2 Edge Connector
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We got our hands on an early sample of SanDisk's A110 SSD. So what? Big deal? Not a chance. This thing is PCI Express-attached and sports the new M.2 edge connector. Read on to learn more about the next generation of solid-state storage connectivity.

You find NAND flash in so many form factors nowadays. The familiar 1.8-, 2.5-, and 3.5-inch drives are hold-overs from the days of mechanical storage, when moving parts and standardized enclosures made it difficult to drop a custom solution into any environment. That's not nearly as problematic with solid-state technology, of course. With so many PCs still lacking an SSD, it only makes sense to continue improving their form factors, infusing flexibility and higher performance.

Like a box of chocolates, but more desirableLike a box of chocolates, but more desirable

Fortunately, this gets easier as the density of flash increases. It used to be that more dies crammed into more memory packages were necessary to enable the highest-capacity SSDs. And that meant eating up more PCB space. Today, there are some truly compact options available. Don't believe me? Check out the box of OEM offerings that SanDisk sent us. Some are used in gambling machines, others handle I/O for digital signage, and the more familiar ones end up in the computing devices we're all used to working on.

Today, though, there's something very specific we want to look at: the M.2-based drives. Specifically, we got our hands on the 256 GB SanDisk A110 M.2 PCIe.

The A110: 60 mm long, 22 mm wide, and less than 4 mm highThe A110: 60 mm long, 22 mm wide, and less than 4 mm high

From mSATA To M.2

When we get right down to it, the mini-PCIe form factor that mSATA-based SSDs resemble was mostly used for enabling Wi-Fi connectivity in notebooks. Yes, Intel made a Turbo Cache module for Windows Vista-equipped laptops armed with a few gigabytes of NAND for the operating system's ReadyBoost feature, but that was all the upgradeable slot was used for at first. Eventually, mSATA caught on for SSDs in notebooks as per-gigabyte pricing fell and density increased. But the dimensions were all wrong for efficiently placing the components that go into an SSD.

As laptops got thinner and lighter, storage had to make a transition as well. Although mSATA served admirably for years, it's clear that something different is needed moving forward, especially in Ultrabooks, which are governed by Intel's requirements for performance and power consumption. This is where M.2 comes in.

M.2 2242, 2260, and 2280 (from the top)M.2 2242, 2260, and 2280 (from the top)

M.2 is a new interface and collection of form factors built around a 20 mm-wide edge connector. The three M.2-based drives from SanDisk in the shot above represent the 2242, 2260, and 2280 versions. Each PCB is 22 mm wide (a little wider than the connector itself) and varies in length: 42, 60, and 80 mm.

What each vendor chooses to do with available space on the circuit board is largely based on application requirements. Conceivably, you could shove lots of flash on each side and create a high-capacity drive. But it's more likely that the longer variations will simply be used to create single-sided devices with a lower profile (which is what the black 80 mm SanDisk X110 above does). A double-sided M.2-based SSD is only 3.5 mm or so thick, while a single-sided drive measures less than 2 mm. So clearly, every little bit of space matters in the coming generation of mobile devices.

At least at first, most M.2-based SSDs will be quite similar to mSATA drives. They'll employ SATA-capable controllers with performance that looks the same as a result. And if you had a platform equipped with SATA, mSATA, and M.2, there are several vendors that could sell you an almost-identical SSD for each interface (like Crucial with its M500).

If you really want to exceed the limits of SATA, you need an M.2-based SSD with a native PCI Express controller on-board. That's what SanDisk is showing off in the A110 we're benchmarking today.

SanDisk A110 M.2: Attached Via Two PCIe 2.0 Lanes

The Marvell 88SS9183-BNP2The Marvell 88SS9183-BNP2

As suggested, the A110 M.2 doesn't employ a SATA flash controller. Instead, it rocks Marvell's 88SS9183, a native PCIe 2.0 processor communicating across two lanes, a theoretical 1 GB/s in each direction. Drop SanDisk's A110 in and it shows up as an AHCI device, with no special drivers needed. That's a bit different from the PCIe-based SSDs you've seen reviewed in the past, which did require proprietary drivers. In contrast, SATA devices are able to use AHCI, and Windows has those drivers built-in (storahci.sys in Win 8 and msahci.sys in prior versions).

One day, NVM Express will standardize solid-state storage over PCIe, and that's good news if for no other reason than AHCI wasn't designed with SSDs in mind. The A110 doesn't interface via NVMe, though. It shares AHCI support with all of the SATA-based drives out there. And that's fine; AHCI remains viable so long as NVMe is still over the horizon.

A Trip Around SanDisk's A110

In addition to its Marvell controller, this A110 plays host to 256 GB of SanDisk's eX2 ABL Toggle-mode NAND built on a 19 nm process. Given two packages per side, totaling four, we can surmise that each houses eight 64 Gb dies. Add Marvell's 9183 controller and 256 MB of Hynix DDR3, and you have a SSD. It's fair to say that the A110 is a lot like the Extreme II we reviewed in SanDisk Extreme II SSD Review: Striking At The Heavy-Hitters, right down to SanDisk's non-volatile emulated SLC cache technology, nCache.

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  • 0 Hide
    Mike Friesen , September 5, 2013 10:03 PM
    Awesome new stuff. Can't wait to see if this drive actually uses the full potential of the M2, and if Samsung or OCZ can one-up them.
  • 5 Hide
    cryan , September 5, 2013 10:31 PM
    Quote:
    Awesome new stuff. Can't wait to see if this drive actually uses the full potential of the M2, and if Samsung or OCZ can one-up them.


    Samsung actually has some pretty awesome M.2 PCIe action going on. We're trying to get our hands on everything, so stay tuned.


    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan

  • 0 Hide
    radiovan , September 5, 2013 10:32 PM
    It will be nice to see vendors implement the NVMe connectors in the desktop mobo's, which in turn will redefine case design, as less storage space will be required for storage. I am aware that the initial intent is to direct these at the mobile market, but desktops can benefit as well.
  • 2 Hide
    cryan , September 5, 2013 11:08 PM
    Quote:
    It will be nice to see vendors implement the NVMe connectors in the desktop mobo's, which in turn will redefine case design, as less storage space will be required for storage. I am aware that the initial intent is to direct these at the mobile market, but desktops can benefit as well.


    You'll really see NVMe take off on the desktop with the move towards SATA Express. A SSD on SATA Express will leverage NVMe and two PCIe Gen 3 lanes. Though some motherboards will (and already do) have M.2 connectors, M.2 really makes more sense in mobile applications. M.2 will only get traction on the desktop insofar as it will begin to replace mSATA. Tons of mainboards, especially smaller form factor products embrace mSATA, and moving to M.2 is a natural transition. However, M.2 drives are hard to find right now, and we really won't see a plethora of options until next year.

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan
  • 1 Hide
    nekromobo , September 6, 2013 12:50 AM
    I got M.2 toshiba ssd in my Sony Vaio Pro 13.. review that?

    and it should have samsung M.2 in some countries..
  • 2 Hide
    CaedenV , September 6, 2013 8:59 AM
    I may no longer have motivation to upgrade my system based on CPU specs, but with DDR4, M.2, new restive storage based SSDs, and better chipset features I will still have enough reason to upgrade in a year or two.
  • 0 Hide
    jimmysmitty , September 6, 2013 9:07 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    It will be nice to see vendors implement the NVMe connectors in the desktop mobo's, which in turn will redefine case design, as less storage space will be required for storage. I am aware that the initial intent is to direct these at the mobile market, but desktops can benefit as well.


    You'll really see NVMe take off on the desktop with the move towards SATA Express. A SSD on SATA Express will leverage NVMe and two PCIe Gen 3 lanes. Though some motherboards will (and already do) have M.2 connectors, M.2 really makes more sense in mobile applications. M.2 will only get traction on the desktop insofar as it will begin to replace mSATA. Tons of mainboards, especially smaller form factor products embrace mSATA, and moving to M.2 is a natural transition. However, M.2 drives are hard to find right now, and we really won't see a plethora of options until next year.

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan


    That's what I was thinking. SATA Express is going to be fast enough for now as I have used PCIe SSDs before (OCZ Revo based drive) and compared to my 520 its hard to notice a difference, especially since there are other bottlenecks stopping it from being able to utilize that bandwidth.

    This will be great for ultra portable systems though and ITX systems.
  • 2 Hide
    cryan , September 6, 2013 10:52 AM
    Quote:
    I got M.2 toshiba ssd in my Sony Vaio Pro 13.. review that?

    and it should have samsung M.2 in some countries..


    Absolutely... just send it my way and consider it done.

    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan


  • 0 Hide
    m32 , September 6, 2013 12:11 PM
    Christopher Ryan, I'll take this off of your hands.

    Regards,
    m32
  • 0 Hide
    mikeangs2004 , September 6, 2013 7:19 PM
    will there be RAID or SLI/CFX for PCIe based SSD's?
    I don't think so b/c it's already way above 6G limit.
  • 0 Hide
    markhahn , September 7, 2013 11:04 AM
    the power numbers don't make a lot of sense. I suspect either the pcie interface is being kept in a high-power mode (plls running, etc) or else your molex is supplying power to other stuff on the board. (there must be a dc-dc regulator on the auxiliary card, since molex provides only 12,5.)
  • 0 Hide
    cryan , September 7, 2013 6:04 PM
    Quote:
    the power numbers don't make a lot of sense. I suspect either the pcie interface is being kept in a high-power mode (plls running, etc) or else your molex is supplying power to other stuff on the board. (there must be a dc-dc regulator on the auxiliary card, since molex provides only 12,5.)


    This is almost certainly true. I mean, we know it uses DC to DC to step the 5v down to 3.3v. But oddly, SanDisk rates the max write power consumption at 5.5w, and I could only get it max at 3.5w. Of course, it also possesses a deep slumber state, but that's contingent on having a L1.0 PCIe endpoint, and that hasn't even been ratified yet by PCI-SIG.

    So definitely take the power consumption results with a grain of salt. There are challenges to testing this drive in this way.


    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan
  • 0 Hide
    cryan , September 7, 2013 7:16 PM
    Quote:
    will there be RAID or SLI/CFX for PCIe based SSD's?
    I don't think so b/c it's already way above 6G limit.


    If you happened to have the ability to run two+ PCIe SSDs, M.2 or otherwise, you can always soft-raid them. There are reasons why you'd want to avoid such a setup, but it'd totally work. Intel's 910 PCIe SSD shows 2 or 4 drives to the OS and then they can be soft-raided from there, for instance.


    Regards,
    Christopher Ryan

  • 0 Hide
    abbadon_34 , September 8, 2013 4:31 PM
    what command line switches were use in robocopy?
  • 0 Hide
    mikeangs2004 , September 9, 2013 5:31 PM
    Is there TRIM/garbage collection?
  • 0 Hide
    Dax corrin , September 10, 2013 11:33 AM
    Awesome stuff, wish I could afford it.
  • 0 Hide
    Blaise170 , September 15, 2013 9:44 AM
    It seems like new progress is being made in the field of NAND every day. I can't wait until you can get high capacity drives for around the same price as HDDs, but I've heard that even as late as 2017 SSD storage will only have a 33% share.
  • 0 Hide
    ryyple , October 4, 2013 12:20 AM
    I'm a complete novice to all this stuff, yet I have a few questions that maybe someone can answer.

    Are these M2 devices still considered SATA drives?
    Using a PCIe (or other) interface for the M2 how could you clone these devices?
    Can these devices then be cloned using a standard HDD duplicator?
    Is there such a thing as a M2 "adapter" that plugs into the above duplicator?

    Thanks for your response.
  • 0 Hide
    tpidner17 , November 12, 2013 7:22 PM
    Christopher,

    On page four of this review, in the maximum 4kb speed chart, it says "in MB/s [higher is better]." However, shouldn't that refer to the fact that it is measuring max IOps, rather than write speed? It seems like a type to me, so I wanted to let you know.