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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.