Intel Solid State Drives

Intel Solid State Drives. Built to perform. Built to last.

Intel Solid State Drives - Better by Design

Solid State Drives are catching the attention of solution providers through out the computer industry primarily due to the dramatic gains in performance, lower power consumption, longer MDF, and higher shock ratings all of which make these drives ideal for many computer usage models such as notebooks and high IOPS servers.

As this technology segment has continued to grow, with the successful launch of Intel SSD solutions many new competitors, mainly memory companies, have begun to offer SSDs as a way to gain access to the storage market.  With so many choices, it’s important to understand that not all SSDs are created equal and as such not all will yield the same performance benefits.

The first differentiator for SSD relates to the NAND flash of which would either be SLC (Single Level Cell), MLC (Multi Level Cell) or TLC (Triple level Cell). The difference between the three is the amount of data stored per cell, with SLC it's 1-bit per cell, with MLC it's 2-bits per cell and with TLC its 3 bits per cell. These differences in design impact performance, MDF, storage capacity, and most importantly price point all of which are factors that determine which type of NAND is best for which type of application.

In general, because SLC dives are less complex they have longer MDF (10 times that of MLC and 20 times that of TLC), less storage capacity, higher costs and better performance than other NAND. MLC and TLC NAND however offer far greater potential for NAND devices because they offer very good performance, high durability, low power consumption and have the advantage of being able to store more bits per cell which increases capacity and lowers the cost per gigabit for devices such as SSD drives. All these advantages are driving SSD growth in all markets including data centers, high performance computing, mobile computing and so on.

As the demand for greater capacity in SSDs continued to grow, the traditional planar NAND was reaching its scaling limits making it increasing difficult to meet the need of more storage. With that came the introduction of 3D NAND or V-NAND as it is called by Samsung which uses an innovative technology to stack the NAND cells vertically to provide 3X the capacity. 3D NAND or V-NAND incorporates either MLC or TLC NAND using the x,y and z axis to expand vertically.

Since SLC, MLC and TLC take the same amount of drive space and since MLC as well as TLC drives store 2 bits or 3 bits of data per cell, these drives have higher capacity at the same price point as SLC making them less expensive per GB. In addition, since the data flow and read/write logarithms are more complex, traditional MLC and TLC drives have a lower Mean Time before Failure (MDF or MTBF) rating in terms of the endurance for write cycles per cell. For example, Multi Level Cell drives are rated at 10,000 program cycles while SLC are rated at 100,000 and TLC are rated at 5,000. This shouldn’t get users overly concerned because even at 10,000 program cycles, the user would have to write 20GB or more of data per day for five years before the drive would theoretically fail meaning you could no longer write data to the drive but could still read data so the information stored would still be accessible. While most SSD manufacturers don’t post MDF or MTBF data, Intel SSD drives are rated at 1.2 to 2 million hours which is similar to enterprise class hard drives. Furthermore, Intel offers an industry leading 3 year warranty on their SSD drives and a 5 year warranty on the 320, 520, 530 and S3500 series. Of course, we always recommend backing up data.   

Shock and vibration are major concerns for many computer users particularly with notebooks which are susceptible to damage resulting from sudden turbulence which can result in a loss of data. Since SSD drives have no moving parts, they can handle much higher shock and vibration, making them ideal for countless mobile applications. SSD drives are rated at 1000G/0.5ms while the most durable hard drives, such as Seagate’s Extreme Environment drives have ratings of 150G/11ms. There is obviously no difference in this case between MLC and SLC only between SSD and regular disk drives.
Because SSD drives use low power memory and don’t have any moving parts, there overall power consumption should be less compared to disk. Hard drives however, particularly for NBs, have been designed very well to consume less power but this typically comes at the cost of lower RPMs which can impact performance so there is a trade off that does not apply for SSD. In general however, SSD drives will extend your battery run time by about 30 minutes making them an ideal option for NB users. Quiet, low power, fast, and durable!

The power savings associated with SSD drives is also a critical factor in data centers where SSD usage is exploding. At first glance people may wonder why you would want to use more costly and lower capacity SSD drives in place of spinning disk drives and the answer is more than just performance gains it is also due to the power savings achieved by using SSD drives. Not only do SSD drives consume less power about 2W on SSDs compared to 6W on HDD but because they finish tasks quicker resulting in lower CPU utilization they help reduce the total power consumption of a computer. In addition, if you wanted to match SSD IOPs performance, a critical factor in data centers, with hard disk drives you’d need considerably more drives which in turn consume more power, and require more cooling which consumes more power. Now, imagine a data center with thousands of drives performing thousands of I/O intensive tasks that require high CPU utilization and you can begin to see how the total power consumption of the data center can be driven down helping to lower operation costs. This is significant particularly since power costs are extremely high and only increase over time. So not only do SSD drives offer considerable performance benefits, the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is significantly lower.
Performance ratings can be very confusing with the multitude of programs that can be used to try to determine the speed of any particular product. Add to this the fact that not all products, including SSD are created equal only adds to the evaluation complexity. SSDs do however dramatically outperform hard drives in just about every area except writes and sequential reads but even this can change over time particularly as the hard drive begins to be populated with data because unlike SSD, hard drives suffer from performance degradation as they reach capacity because there is more data on the platters that needs to be reviewed or written around.

Drive performance is however generally rated by bandwidth (MB/s) the amount of data that can transferred and Operational Performance (IOPS) which is how fast the data is transmitted for both read and write tasks. Comparing bandwidth between HDD and SSD, the fastest hard drives transfer about 200MB/s while SSD push the limits of the SATA port by transferring up to 550MB/s. In terms of IOPS which measures how many times per second a drive is able to read or write data in a given time is important for many types of systems particularly those that handle a lot of requests such as datacenters, servers, video and so on. SSD drives perform astronomically better than spinning disks because the SSD drives controller needs very few times to locate memory address so in the time it takes a HDD drive to perform one task, an SSD drive can perform 20 or more tasks depending on what disk drive technology is being used as the comparison. In addition, advances in technology such as SSD drives that utilize the PCIe interface in place of slow SATA offer even greater performance gains through improved throughput. With PCIe solutions, SSD drives are no longer restricted by the limitations of the SATA bus so they have the potential to reach their true performance capability.
When Intel released the X25-M it dramatically changed the landscape of the SSD drive market by introducing a mainstream product that was faster, and had a longer MDF than any MLC drive on the market. In fact, the X25-M outperformed many SLC drives and had higher capacities as well as a lower overall price. The key to Intel’s SSD solution was a result of the exceptional engineering and design of the controller and how it managed the flash memory as well as data flow. By incorporating technologies such as Native Command Queuing and write amplification, Intel was able to dramatically re-engineer the SSD drive and create a product that was truly Better by Design.

Intel continued its tradition of developing innovative SSD solutions such as 3D NAND, PCIe solutions, NVMe drives, and the soon to be released 3D Xpoint technology. Intel is truly setting new standards for reliability, MDF ratings, warranty, performance and feature set to offer resellers a full range of drives targeted at different sectors of the market.

Reliability – SSD drives by nature are extremely reliable and rugged but Intel drives are among the most reliable in the industry with the highest MDF ratings.
Warranty – Intel SSD drives come with a three to five year warranty depending on the drive giving them among the longest warranties in the industry.
Performance – Not all SSD drives are created equal and performance is not just a factor of SLC vs MLC. Other influential factors include caching logarithms, controller design and silicon. Intel has extensive expertise in all these areas which help them build drives that are Better by Design.
Features – Intel SSD drives also support the Intel SSD Toolbox which is a drive management software that allows the user to view critical information related to their SSD drive such as model number, drive capacity, firmware version, drive health, performance optimization features and a tool that helps estimate the remaining drive life which is important for write functions.

In their simplest form, SSD drives are basically a memory card packaged inside a metal case that makes them look like a familiar spinning disk drive and allows them to be easily installed in standard computer drive bays. This however is not the only form factor used in computers for SSD drives. In fact, even the standard hard drive format has different options including 2.5” diameter drives that are either 7mm for thin devices such as Ultrabooks or 9.5mm thick for standard size form factors.

Due to their use of NAND memory, there are other form factors that allow SSD drives to be used in very thin systems, or as a secondary drive. This is a great benefit in many systems from small form factor PCs like the Intel NUC, to notebooks and even AIO systems. The most common options for adding SSDs to these systems other than by using a standard SATA interface is mSATA or m.2 form factor. mSATA and m.2 devices are approximately the size of a business card and they connect to a mini-PCI-E port that in conjunction with the dimensions of the physical card help reduce the real estate needed to accommodate the drive. Many SSD manufactures offer mSATA and m.2 products ranging in capacity from 32GB to 1TB or more.

With the desire to continue to reduce the width of computer devices came the need for lower profile storage and the ability to increase overall capacity so Intel worked to create a new mSATA form factor now called M.2 (Formally New Generation Form Factor or NFGG). Despite the large capacities we saw with mSATA manufacturers could still only populate the PCB with 4 NAND modules so there were limitations which impacted the overall capacity and increased the cost for higher GBs. M.2 SSD drives were designed to resolve the space limitations of mSATA so they come in four different lengths ranging from 42mm to 110mm allowing them to accommodate more NAND to reach higher storage levels and reduce the cost per GB. Although all M.2 cards have the same standard connection in terms of width, they do have different lengths and different edge connectors or key types so it's important to make sure you select a card that is compatible with your system.

M.2 Dimensions: As mentioned above, M.2 cards are available in different lengths and while some systems have mounts (Clip or Screw position) that will accommodate different size cards which give you more options, some are limited to supporting just one card length. Common terms for identifying the dimensions of M.2 cards include 22x42, 22x60, 22x80 or 22x110 where 22 refers to the width 22mm (Standard for all M.2 cards) and the second number refers to the length of the card in mm. You may also see the cards referenced as 2242, 2260, 2280 or 22110 for example.



M.2 Edge Connector or Key Type: The big advantage offered by mSATA and M.2 is that these SSD devices utilize the PCI-E bus rather than a SATA III connection. This allows for significantly better performance as a result of the increased throughput capacity. The overall performance however is determined by the number of PCI-E lanes used by the M.2 device which can be PCI-E x2 or PCI-E x4. The decision to do PCI-E x2 or PCI-E x4 is determined by the motherboard or mobile device manufacture so in addition to selecting an M.2 card length that is support by the device, you also need to select a card with an edge connector or keying type that is compatible. There are two M.2 Key types for the socket and three possible key types for the M.2 card.
A “B” Keying supports PCI-E x 2 for up to 10Gbits/sec while an “M” keying supports PCI-E x4 for up to 20Gbits/sec which is both significantly higher than the theoretical maximum of 6Gbits/sec of SATA III.

M.2 SSD cards are available in three different key types which include “B” keying, “M” keying and “B+M” keying. While “B” keying and “M” keying cards can only work in a similar socket, the “B+M” keying card can work in either a “B” keying or “M” keying connector so it is the most versatile in terms of compatibility. It is however important to note that “B+M” keying cards use PCI-E x2 so if they are installed in a “M” keying connector with PCI-Ex4 their maximum throughput will be 10Gbits/sec for PCI-E x2 performance, not 20Gbit/sec which is possible with PCI-E x4.

Most Common Connections: The most common keying types in the market are “M” keying for the connector (Some manufacturers use PCI-E x2 even with an “M” connector) and “B+M” keying for the cards. For customers that are pushing the performance envelop, you want to make sure you have a device that uses an “M” keying connector that uses PCI-E x4 and an “M” keying M.2 card.        

SSD drives can offer benefits to almost any user whether they are looking to replace their entire storage solution with SSD or use SSD as a boot drive to increase performance but there are distinct markets that offer exceptional growth and value for resellers who introduce SSD.

Datacenters and Servers
The key determining factors in environments that have high data requests is total cost of ownership which takes into account performance and overall operation costs, not just cost per GB. With datacenters or servers, replacing spinning disks with SSD drives can boost performance while at the same time reducing or lowering power costs. Looking at this two ways, if we consider a standard server configuration we might consider the storage requirement in total capacity where we would have the same number of SSD and HDD drives to determine our comparison. With SSD drives, they have high IOPS so they finish tasks quicker reducing the workload placed on the processor which lowers cost, they require less cooling or nearly no cooling which reduces power consumption by illuminating extra cooling fans, and the drives themselves consume less power in full use (2W compared to 6W) and in ideal mode where they use 90% less power. The second way would be to consider a datacenter where IOPS performance is critical and you would want to try to match the performance of SSD using HDD. Since SSDs IOPS performance is 20 times or more higher than HDD you would need considerably more spinning disks to achieve the same overall performance. Using the power saving rules previously mentioned and you can see how power costs and space expense would be impacted. In terms of overall TCO, SSD offer a very attractive alternative.

General Computing
HDD are not going to be replaced by SSDs anytime soon simply because cost per GB is still a critical factor for many users and for many PC usage models but that should not mean those users can’t benefit from adding an SSD to their system. System integrators that offer SSD drives as an optional boot drive or to create RAID configuration as well as utilize motherboards that can support mSATA/M.2 SSD drives can give their clients a better user experience and increase the value of their systems. Systems would boot faster, load the OS and other applications faster, run games faster and so on. Just about every usage related to performance would benefit from an SSD drive.

SSD drives are a natural fit for notebooks particularly now that capacities have gone up and costs per GB have come down. Of course notebook users would recognize the performance gains associated with using an SSD drive but they would also gain longer battery life due to the lower power consumption, have less failures as a result of the higher shock and vibration tolerances provided by SSD drives, and would be quieter due to the lower heat dissipated by the drives. Additionally many notebooks offer mSATA or M.2 (NGFF) slots that would allow for dual SSD drives, RAID, and other storage options for NBs that can’t be achieved using spinning disks.