Intel's Skylake-X processors offer storage enthusiasts additional PCI Express lanes that are useful for attaching NVMe drives, provided you purchase the expensive models. Intel hasn't unleashed vROC features for our motherboards yet, but soon will. Highpoint's SSD7101B has landed in our lab; it ships with up to 8TBs of 960 Pro SSDs, which gives us an idea of the benefits of vROC.
Oh, you don't know about vROC? It stands for Virtual RAID On CPU. Nearly a decade ago, Intel started planning to bring more downstream features up to the CPU die, like the memory controller that eliminated the need for a North Bridge altogether.
Intel's vROC allows you to build extensive SSD arrays with up to 20 devices. That's something you can currently do via software with Windows Storage Spaces, but you can't boot from the software array. Intel's virtual RAID adds a layer of code and hardware before the Windows boot sequence, which makes RAID possible. This is similar to the PCH RAID we have now on more advanced Intel chipsets, but it's more effective with the hardware directly on the processor.
Initial Performance Results
To run some quick numbers, we popped our sample card from HighPoint into a desktop system that had a special Z97 chipset. Samsung provided HighPoint with four 960 Pro 1TB SSDs for our upcoming review. We ran through some simple four-corner tests to gauge initial performance, with four workers each using a queue depth of eight. That means we are testing the card at QD32.
Paired with four Samsung 960 Pro 1TB SSDs, the card delivered nearly 13,000 MB/s of sequential read performance. Sequential write performance is knocking on the door of 7,000 MB/s. The random read performance with each drive addressed separately was nearly 400,000 IOPS, and random writes came to 411,000 IOPS with the drives in a fresh state.
We showed a few similar products from motherboard manufacturers like MSI and Asus, but neither company was willing to discuss pricing. MSI went as far to say that its special bifurcation card will ship only in prebuilt systems.
The HighPoint SSD7101A-1 should permanently solve the thermal throttling issue by using a small squirrel cage fan to blow air around the M.2 SSDs. The card supports both 2280 and 22110 form factor drives.
If it's not obvious already, the SSD7101A-1 gets around passing the storage data through the restrictive DMI data path. The DMI bus still has a hard limit of PCIe 3.0 x4, and it shares that bandwidth with other devices such as SATA, USB, networking, and so on. Intel relied on the DMI to hang several ports from the chipset, but the company never intended to utilize the limited bandwidth all at once.
The HighPoint SSD7101A, and similar cards, shoot the data straight to the CPU on motherboards with enough lanes, just like a video card. Without the vROC feature, the system sees the drives as individual SSDs. In this configuration, the SSD7101A acts like an HBA. You can use the drives separately or with Windows software RAID.
How It Works
Intel's vROC can support up to 20 storage devices, but we won't see enthusiast motherboards with that many slots anytime soon. That's where products like the HighPoint SSD7100 Series come in. Several companies will release PCI Express cards that house up to four NVMe SSDs that utilize PCIe 3.0 x4 each. The cards use a special chip from PLX (now part of Avago) to bifurcate the PCIe 3.0 x16 lanes on a single PCIe slot.
The ability to split PCIe lanes has been around for some time now in the server market. The technology is trickling down to consumer products, and even some existing motherboards already have the feature. Currently, it makes sense only on the X99 and X299 platforms, though. We managed to get it to work on products as old as Z87, but you can't run a discrete video card because Intel's consumer platform is stingy with PCI Express lanes.
The SSD7100 Series consists of four devices, but only three are on the website. The SSD7120 and SSD7110 utilize the U.2 cable specification. The 7120 connects to four NVMe SSDs, but the 7110 attaches sixteen SAS drives using the older AHCI protocol.
The SSD7101A and its variants are different. These cards hold four M.2 NVMe SSDs each, and you can combine more than one in each PC. The SSD7101A ships with Samsung 960 EVO SSDs pre-installed, and the SSD7101B ships with 960 Pro SSDs with up to 8TB of capacity.
HighPoint has only certified Samsung 960 Series NVMe SSDs because it says that's the only product people want to use for high-performance systems.
The SSD7101A-1 is a $399 add-in card that ships without SSDs. You can use 960 Series products or give other M.2 NVMe drives a shot. A rumor emerged at Computex that Intel would only support Intel SSDs with the vROC feature, but that is false. You will need to purchase a hardware dongle to enable RAID 5 and RAID 10 features, though.
This is just the beginning of our time with the HighPoint SSD7101A.
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