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Intel SSD 910 Review: PCI Express-Based Enterprise Storage

Intel SSD 910 Review: PCI Express-Based Enterprise Storage
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PCIe-based SSDs have evolved rapidly, with companies like Fusion-io, LSI, and OCZ leading the way. Intel is betting that its reputation for quality and reliability in the enterprise sector are enough to overcome that head-start as it launches SSD 910.

While the virtues of SSD storage have been known for many years, the technology's steady march towards enterprise dominance has focused squarely on the form, fit, and functional replacement of 2.5” SAS-based hard drives. In the data center world, that means you still have large racks of hot-swappable drive carriers, RAID cards, and supporting infrastructure. 

PCIe-based SSDs are an attempt to reduce or combine all essential components in the storage chain. This reduction has multiple benefits, including lower cost, higher performance, higher reliability, and tighter integration. That last point is especially important when talking about solid-state technology. Compared to mechanical drives, SSDs can best be described as finicky. Their performance changes based on previous operations, they periodically execute maintenance tasks n the background, and they have a very specific life cycle. These idiosyncrasies, which are a nuisance for consumer applications, become deal-breakers at an enterprise level. The tight end-to-end (host interface to controller to NAND) integration of PCIe-based SSDs means that the entire package should operate in a single, harmonious state. At least, that's the theory.

Intel's SSD 910 series represents the company's first attempt at this marriage of NAND, PCIe bridge logic, and SAS ASICs.

The drive family is available in 400 and 800 GB capacities, available on the street for $1999 and $4499, respectively. Both flavors feature Intel’s 25 nm High Endurance Technology (HET) MLC NAND, the same stuff we covered in Intel SSD 710 Tested: MLC NAND Flash Hits The Enterprise. When the SATA-based SSD 710 first launched, its capacity was valued at $6/GB. Now, we're looking at less than $5/GB for enterprise-class solid-state storage. Intel packages it all together in a half-height, half-length PCIe 2.0 x8 card.

Intel SSD 910 Series
SSDPEDOX400G301SSDPEDPX800G301
User Capacity
400 GB800 GB
Interface
PCIe 2.0 x8, Half-Height, Half-Length
Sequential Read
1 GB/s2 GB/s
Sequential Write
0.75 GB/s1 GB/s
4K Random Read
90 000 IOPS180 000 IOPS
4K Random Write
38 000 IOPS75 000 IOPS
Power Consumption (Active)
<25 W<25 W*
Power Consumption (Idle)
8 W12 W
Write Endurance
7 PB14 PB
Encryption
AES-256
AES-256


When it comes to high-end storage, details matter a lot. But if you find yourself reading the first and last pages of this piece, let's cut right to the chase in order to make something clear: Intel's SSD 910 doesn't blow away its competition with sequential throughput or random I/O numbers we've never seen before.

The good news for Intel, however, is that judging this particular piece of hardware based on its spec sheer doesn't convey the whole story. Enterprise-oriented customers value quality and reliability as much or more than raw performance. With that in mind, Intel is in a particularly good place. Its X25-E was the gold standard for many years, and its SSD 710 family continues that legacy.

Will well-established quality and reliability be enough to propel Intel out ahead of the pack in a rapidly-expanding and continually-evolving PCIe-based SSD market?

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  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 3, 2012 5:36 AM
    that is one fast Sequential read speed. It to bad that they will be $1000+ market and out of reach of all but the server/ workstation crowd
  • -2 Hide
    Anonymous , July 3, 2012 5:43 AM
    The OCZ is tested with compressible data? talk about best case scenario. what were the incompressible results like?
  • 3 Hide
    s3anister , July 3, 2012 6:30 AM
    PCI-E Solid State Storage is great but I can't help but wonder; where is the Memristor? The true performance gains to be had are with massive RAM-disks that aren't volatile.
  • 4 Hide
    apache_lives , July 3, 2012 9:41 AM
    The most important and un-comparable factor here is 5 years later those Intel SSD's will still be functional, any other brand im surprised they last 5 months in normal machines with the failure rates i have seen first hand - OCZ, GSkill etc there all horrible i bought an Intel SSD for this reason - THEY WORK.

    Review sites never cover real world use - that is to live with it day in day out (reliability), its not all about raw speed and performance.
  • 1 Hide
    ZakTheEvil , July 3, 2012 11:03 AM
    Yeah, consumer SSD reliability is a bit of disappointment. At best they seem to be as reliable as hard drives.
  • 6 Hide
    georgeisdead , July 3, 2012 11:58 AM
    This is a note to address several articles I have come across lately that state intel's reputation for quality and reliability in the SSD market as if it is a given. These comments are from my personal experience with intel's drives. I have owned 3 intel solid state drives, one X25-M G1, and two X25-M G2's. The X25-M G1 failed after 2 years while one of the G2 drives failed after 2.5 years. Now, I am not an expert on MTBF and reliability, but in my opinion this is a pretty poor track record. It is entirely possible that this is a coinicidence, however both drives failed in the same manner, from the same problem (determined by a third party data recovery specialist): Bad NAND flash.

    As best I understand it as it was descibed by the company that analyzed these failed drives, a block of NAND flash either went bad or became inaccessible by the controller rendering the drives useless and unable to be accessed by normal means of hooking it up to a SATA or USB port. Two drives, different NAND (50 nm for the G1 and 34 nm for the G2), same failure mode.

    Once again, this is not definitive, just my observations but to me, I think review sites need to be a little more cautious about how they qualify intel's reputation for quality and reliability because from my perspective, intel has neither and I have since began using crucial SSD's. Hopefully, I will see much longer life from these new drives.
  • 0 Hide
    jdamon113 , July 3, 2012 12:13 PM
    I would like to see something like this stacked in our EMC, Could this drive with a rack of othere just like it, run 24/7 for 3 + years, Sure we replace a drive here and there in our EMC, but the unit as a whole has never went down in its 5 year life.
    Intel, you should test these drive in that real world application. EMC, VM-ware and several data bases carve out some LUN's and Push the envelope. In this situation, should the device prove worthy, the 4000 price tag will come down very fast, and the data center will put it trust in product, So for those reading this for your personal home workstation and gaming ridge, you need not apply in this arena.
    Intel is just about 18-months 2 years of owning the data center, Even EMC is powered by intel.
  • 0 Hide
    jaquith , July 3, 2012 2:39 PM
    Enterprise e.g. SQL you need SLC otherwise you'd be making a career replacing drives. The cost is down time and replacement. I can write more 'stuff' but it's that simple. For our IDX and similar read data it about reliability and capacity.
  • 3 Hide
    willard , July 3, 2012 2:42 PM
    razor7104that is one fast Sequential read speed. It to bad that they will be $1000+ market and out of reach of all but the server/ workstation crowd

    That's because this was not designed for consumers. It's not like they're marking the price up 1000% for shits and giggles. Enterprise hardware costs more to make because it must be much faster and much more reliable.

    This drive, and every other piece of enterprise hardware out there, was never meant to be used by consumers.
  • 3 Hide
    drewriley , July 3, 2012 3:39 PM
    jimbob rubaeThe OCZ is tested with compressible data? talk about best case scenario. what were the incompressible results like?


    Check out the Sequential Performance page, lists both compressible and incompressible. For all the other tests, random (incompressible) data was used.
  • 2 Hide
    drewriley , July 3, 2012 3:45 PM
    georgeisdeadThis is a note to address several articles I have come across lately that state intel's reputation for quality and reliability in the SSD market as if it is a given. These comments are from my personal experience with intel's drives. I have owned 3 intel solid state drives, one X25-M G1, and two X25-M G2's. The X25-M G1 failed after 2 years while one of the G2 drives failed after 2.5 years. Now, I am not an expert on MTBF and reliability, but in my opinion this is a pretty poor track record. It is entirely possible that this is a coinicidence, however both drives failed in the same manner, from the same problem (determined by a third party data recovery specialist): Bad NAND flash.As best I understand it as it was descibed by the company that analyzed these failed drives, a block of NAND flash either went bad or became inaccessible by the controller rendering the drives useless and unable to be accessed by normal means of hooking it up to a SATA or USB port. Two drives, different NAND (50 nm for the G1 and 34 nm for the G2), same failure mode.Once again, this is not definitive, just my observations but to me, I think review sites need to be a little more cautious about how they qualify intel's reputation for quality and reliability because from my perspective, intel has neither and I have since began using crucial SSD's. Hopefully, I will see much longer life from these new drives.


    I agree that we shouldn't use blanket statements, especially on quality, without going through the proper process. Intel has had many issues with their consumer lines, X25-M, 320, etc. I have personally worked with large distributions of their enterprise drives and they are rock solid. Other studies, including articles on this site, have shown the same in real-world scenarios.
  • 1 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , July 3, 2012 3:52 PM
    so how does intel assure such longetivity of these drives over the consumer drives ?

    Best of the best NAND ? firmware? overprovisioning ?
  • 2 Hide
    shin0bi272 , July 3, 2012 5:12 PM
    Quote:
    For comparison purposes, we're putting Intel's SSD 910 up against OCZ's Z-Drive R4 RM88 1.6 TB. Is this a fair fight? No, it isn’t.


    I have to admit I lol'ed at this
  • 2 Hide
    sunsmasher , July 3, 2012 7:11 PM
    Quote:
    This is a note to address several articles I have come across lately that state intel's reputation for quality and reliability in the SSD market as if it is a given. These comments are from my personal experience with intel's drives. I have owned 3 intel solid state drives, one X25-M G1, and two X25-M G2's. The X25-M G1 failed after 2 years while one of the G2 drives failed after 2.5 years. Now, I am not an expert on MTBF and reliability, but in my opinion this is a pretty poor track record. It is entirely possible that this is a coinicidence, however both drives failed in the same manner, from the same problem (determined by a third party data recovery specialist): Bad NAND flash.

    As best I understand it as it was descibed by the company that analyzed these failed drives, a block of NAND flash either went bad or became inaccessible by the controller rendering the drives useless and unable to be accessed by normal means of hooking it up to a SATA or USB port. Two drives, different NAND (50 nm for the G1 and 34 nm for the G2), same failure mode.

    Once again, this is not definitive, just my observations but to me, I think review sites need to be a little more cautious about how they qualify intel's reputation for quality and reliability because from my perspective, intel has neither and I have since began using crucial SSD's. Hopefully, I will see much longer life from these new drives.

    So in other words, you are saying that because of your experience with TWO drives, that reviewers "need to be a little more cautious about how they qualify intel's reputation for quality and reliability", in spite of the fact that Intel drives are universally acknowledged to be the most reliable in the industry.
    Obviously, you got a bad break on the drives you purchased, but things like that can happen, and if you want to change drives, try Samsung, because they also are establishing a reputation for above average reliability.
  • 1 Hide
    CaedenV , July 3, 2012 7:16 PM
    apache_livesThe most important and un-comparable factor here is 5 years later those Intel SSD's will still be functional, any other brand im surprised they last 5 months in normal machines with the failure rates i have seen first hand - OCZ, GSkill etc there all horrible i bought an Intel SSD for this reason - THEY WORK.Review sites never cover real world use - that is to live with it day in day out (reliability), its not all about raw speed and performance.

    True, Intel is the reliable choice, but for consumer systems this is not necessarily the 'right' choice. My wife's system drive died last year (mid Aug), and I replaced it with a 60GB OCZ Solid3 which ran $80 on sale at the time ($100 retail). Today I can get a newer, faster, more reliable 60GB SSD for ~$50, which is ~1/2 of the cost per performance on the same size drive. Next year the 60GB drives will not halve again, but we are going to see something more like what we see with traditional drives where there is a base floor of, say, $40 for a 60GB drive, and then $50-60 for 120GB, and $75-100 for 240GB. In fact we are already beginning to see this sandwiching of prices. But because SSDs are simpler to make than HDDs (no motor, no actuator, etc.) the floor may actually be lower than what HDDs hit.

    But my point is that for the same cost of your single drive I can re-purchase ~2-3x over the same period and still have saved money over the same time period, and get a massive upgrade in performance and/or size with each upgrade. And because everything lives as an image, it is just a matter of a few hours of down time to hike up to Microcenter and deploy the new drive.

    Buying for stability makes sense in a mission critical environment, or in a slow moving or mature technology. But in a market that is moving so quickly, it really makes more sense to buy cheap and plan on replacing it in a year or two. Otherwise it is more like being attached to a boat anchor where your initial investment ties you to antiquated technology.

    BTW, 1 year out and the Solid 3 still runs great.
  • 0 Hide
    eriko , July 4, 2012 8:48 AM
    Since we are commenting on reliability here.... Here are my observations;

    Early MLC OCZ drives (Core?) 2 x 128GB & 1 x the smaller one (forget capacity) = all returned. Refund not given, so when RMA replaced, straight to Flea-bay, un-opened, I pity the buyers.

    Intel 1 x X25M MLC 160GB, arrived DOA. Replacement sent quickly: 3 yrs later, not a hiccup. Running as an OS drive with databases in the background too. Installs were not as fast as hoped for, due to lower write performance, but no real complaints, and 160GB was a nice size.

    Intel 1 x X25E SLC 64GB, really what you would hope for in terms of performance: Absolutely no problems to date. Same usage as X25M. Installs are lightening quick. Nothing to fault except capacity.

    Kingston: 2 x MLC SSD Now V+ (100GB ?) Both failed within 6 months. Yet to return second one. Usage: CrapBook, email, general usage.

    Patriot: 1x MLC Wildfire 240GB, waited until BSOD issue resolved before purchase, updated FW right from the start, fault-less to date. Usage: same as Intel drives above. Under SATA-2 I reckon the X25E is faster though. No space problems.

    Hope that helps someone...
  • 0 Hide
    blazorthon , July 4, 2012 5:26 PM
    If both power consumption and performance are so important without sacrificing reliability, then why isn't there a PCIe Samsung 830 based drive? They use almost zero power (they probably have more than an order of magnitude more performance and capacity per watt than any other SSD) and have supreme reliability while being one of the fastest drives overall, so I'd expect them to be a prime candidate for this. Make a PCIe drive with four 830's integrated and it could use a mere fraction of the 910's power while probably being quite a bit faster for reads and maybe not superior for writes, but hey, it would definitely win in pretty much every other way. Sure, it wouldn't compare to OCZ's monster 12TB and 16TB PCIe drives, but it could compete exceptionally well in the same market as the 910 and the cheaper Revo drives.
  • 0 Hide
    memadmax , July 4, 2012 8:53 PM
    Have patience.
    The technology needs to mature still.
    Hard drives were the same way... (MFM/RLL: notorious for bad sectors out of nowhere,snail performance. IDE: getting better, bad sector problems starting to go away. SATA: Bad sectors are caused by YOU now =P Interface now outpaces theoretical maximum physical speed limit.)

    In a couple of years, you all will be only complaining about the size of the chips and wish that they were the size of your thumbdrives.... =P
  • 1 Hide
    LORD_ORION , July 5, 2012 12:51 AM
    Look at the warranty they offer... there is economics behind this.

    No manufacturer will offer a 5 year warranty if less then 99% of the drives will meet this criteria... it is expensive to RMA product that expire during the warranty period.
  • 0 Hide
    sudeshc , July 5, 2012 11:01 AM
    but why are they so expensive.....
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