IDF Fall 2008: Through the Silent Glass

The Silent Front
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A whole range of Intel solid state storage products were announced to the tech press at IDF. The targeted applications range from servers, workstations, desktops and notebooks, to netbooks and nettops, MIDs and a slew of commercial and industrial embedded products.

Why is Intel getting into the SSD business? The answer is that there is a business opportunity which Intel is well-positioned to exploit, and great potential for performance gains for any computing device that currently uses a conventional hard drive (HDD). This slide from Intel's press presentation pretty much covers it:

Over the past 12 years, CPU performance improved 175 times while HDD performance improved 1.3 times. Where's the bottleneck?

It's obvious that HDD performance is the biggest single bottleneck in PC performance, and anyone who has replaced a slow old operating system drive in their desktop with a newer faster one can attest to the difference even a small improvement can make. SSDs offer random access times that are orders of magnitudes faster than HDDs, and higher sustained throughput. Intel's claim is that they will offer the highest performance and reliability. Numerous slides and comparisons were shown to demonstrate the superior performance of these drives over both other SSDs and high performance HDDs in server, workstation and desktops. Many multimedia presentations on SSD are linked on this Intel page.

The items of greatest interest for consumers were the high performance SATA models, which are divided into two categories:

1. X25-E Extreme SATA: Latest generation native SATA interface with advanced architecture employing 10 parallel NAND Flash channels equipped with single-level cell NAND Flash memory for extreme overall performance and reliability. With powerful Native Command Queuing to enable up to 32 concurrent operations, these SSDs deliver higher input/output per second and throughput performance than other SSDs and drastically outperform traditional hard disk drives. They also feature low write amplification and a unique wear-leveling design for higher reliability, meaning they not only perform better, they last longer. 32GB and 64GB models in 2.5" form factor. The following key specs tell much:

Sustained sequential read: up to 250 MB/s; Sustained sequential write: up to 170 MB/s
Read Latency 75 microseconds
I/O Per Second (IOPS) Random 4 KB reads: >35,000 IOPS; Random 4 KB writes: >3,300 IOPS
Power Consumption Active: 2.4 W typical (server workload1); Idle (DIPM): 0.06 W typical
Operating Shock 1,000 G/0.5 ms
Life expectancy 2 Million Hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)

2. X25-M and X18-M Mainstream SATA: These models appear to have the same basic technology as the X25-E Extreme, and differ mainly in slower write speed and shorter life expectancy. They come in 2.5" and 1.8" form factors, in 80GB and 160GB. Key Specs:

Read Speeds: Up to 250MB/s; Write Speeds: Up to 70MB/s
Read Latency 85 microseconds
Power consumption Active: 150mW Typical (PC workload¹); Idle (DIPM): 0.06W Typical
Operating shock 1,000G / 0.5ms
Life expectancy 1.2 million hours Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF)

Consumers have every reason to react with good cheer. The HDD has been the biggest bottleneck to PC performance for years, a source of mechanical unreliability and noise. Acceleration of SSD development and its broad adoption will be great for both low noise and high performance computing. In reality, a SSD can boost the speed of almost any functional PC to near state-of-art. The wait of 12 or 13 ms for typical data access in a 7200RPM HDD is an eternity compared to the sub-0.1ms access times of SSDs. RAM is finally cheap enough that anyone can afford to have plenty, and processor performance has been far beyond that of other components for years. The obvious, massively satisfying upgrade for almost any PC is a SSD. It has the capacity to transform every user's experience.

Intel provided press members with a non-working sample of a 1.8" SSD. A few press members opened one up immediately after the conference, presumably to snap and post photos of the innards, which consist of electronics that you can sort out only if you're in the microprocessor manufacturing business. Here's one that's still intact. (I was promised a working sample to review very soon.)

The one critical missing information about Intel SSDs was price. Price is everything.

The pricing and availability of solid state drives has been improving quite rapidly over the past 18 months, with many retail brands introducing new products at ever lower prices. Some popular brands, such as OCZ, are currently offering 64GB 2.5" SATA SSD for well under $300. This is still an order of magnitude higher per GB than any conventional hard drives, but way lower than the pricing of more serious enterprise-oriented brands which can easily run over $1,000 for a 64GB model. However, user reports on the cheaper SSDs suggest an alarming number of failures and unreliable performance. So where Intel SSD pricing falls is critical. Intel says we'll find out within a month when their SSDs begin shipping.

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