Intel SSD 910 Review: PCI Express-Based Enterprise Storage

Is Intel's SSD 910 Right For Your Enterprise Application?

Determining the right SSD for your enterprise application is a daunting task. The variables that must be taken into account are too numerous to list, and many of them are at odds with the others. When you add in the fact that enterprise-oriented drives are purchased in much higher quantities over longer life-cycles, picking the right one becomes a very critical decision.

Intel's SSD 910 is like the Swiss Army knife of PCIe-based SSDs. It isn’t class-leading in any one test or specification, but it consistently performs well in every metric we use for evaluating high-end storage products. It strikes a great balance between performance, endurance, physical dimensions, and cost. 

We were particularly surprised during the write endurance testing. After spending some time with Intel's SSD 710, we thought we knew what to expect from HET MLC flash. But we were wrong. Intel's SSD 910 nearly doubles the SSD 710's observed P/E cycles. Admittedly, write endurance testing isn’t an exact science. Taking 1% of off one drive isn’t exactly statistically significant. But it gives us a general indication of how the drive performs. And it's reliable enough to tell that SLC-based SSDs are still king when it comes to write endurance, so long as you're willing to pay a much higher price.

Beyond reliability, the SSD 910 performs well, too. In our testing, the 800 GB version posted 225 000 read IOPS, which is well above its 180 000 rating. The 400 GB version did well too, pushing past 110 000 IOPS when it's only specified for 90 000. Write performance was almost as good, and each configuration easily achieved its specifications. Sequential read and write performance lived up to our expectations, too. 

We also found that unless you are performing large-transfer sequential writes, there really isn’t much reason to use Maximum Performance mode. If you are, though, you get huge sequential write performance improvements at the expense of a slightly hotter-running card.

Admittedly, we were initially concerned about power consumption and heat dissipation, which normally go hand-in-hand. Our testing shows that, while you need to be aware your server's power delivery and cooling, that's no more true here than with any other device. In fact, any add-in card that draws 25 W and is passively cooled can be expected to behave in much the same way. Intel is just very up-front with its data.

Summing It All Up

After spending a few weeks with the SSD 910 (in addition to older enterprise-oriented drives from Intel), we have two critical takeaways. First, the company almost always specifies its enterprise-class hardware for worst-case situations, which we appreciate. Second, the drives always meet or exceed their specifications. And, really, isn’t that the highest compliment that you can give an enterprise device?

With that said, there isn’t much use in crowning any one SSD the best. The key is whether a given device is right for your specific application. Based on its specifications, we weren’t sure how well the SSD 910 would hold up against other PCIe-based SSDs. Over the course of our testing, though, it became clear that Intel's rookie PCIe-based effort is much more than the sum of its parts.

If you need massive IOPS at any cost, this isn’t the right drive for you. If you need write endurance at any cost, this isn’t the right drive for you.  But, if you have a defined workload where you need good write endurance at a good price point, this could be a very attractive solution, indeed.

Does Intel catch up to other vendors selling PCIe-based SSDs with its SSD 910? Decidedly, yes. Our only concern is one of timing. Might other manufacturers be preparing to leapfrog Intel in the next few months? OCZ and Micron already announced PCIe-based SSDs with direct PCIe-to-NAND connectivity (no SATA/SAS controller needed), random I/O performance close to 1 000 000 IOPS, and throughput exceeding 3 GB/s. We'll have to wait and see if that means Intel will be playing catch-up.

  • 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
  • The OCZ is tested with compressible data? talk about best case scenario. what were the incompressible results like?
  • s3anister
    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.
  • apache_lives
    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.
  • ZakTheEvil
    Yeah, consumer SSD reliability is a bit of disappointment. At best they seem to be as reliable as hard drives.
  • georgeisdead
    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.
  • jdamon113
    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.
  • jaquith
    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.
  • willard
    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 crowdThat'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.
  • drewriley
    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.