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Intel 520 240GB Cherryville SSD Review

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AkG

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“We are taking back the enthusiast marketplace”.

With those seven words, SSD product manager Kevin Crow boldly staked Intel’s claim in the high end storage market. It may sound like an overly ambitious goal considering the wealth of high end drives available these days but we can’t forget that Intel used to be the last word in SSD performance. The new 520 “Cherryville” series is the first step towards what they hope will be market domination.

Ever since SandForce’s introduction of the SF1200 series controller, Intel seemed to have fallen further and further behind the technology curve. While the Marvell-based 510 was indeed a good first step towards regaining market share lost to the SandForce juggernaut, it never could compete on a level playing field in categories like price, performance and flexibility. It may have outperformed the SandForce-based Vertex 3s of this world in some scenarios but the benchmark numbers normally associated with flagship drives remained elusive. Things are about to change since Intel is phasing out the 510 and replacing it with the 520 series of high performance SSDs. Not surprisingly, after a full year and a half in the making, they have chosen SandForce’s SF2281 controller for their newest SSD iteration and have added some unique features for good measure.


So why did Intel wait for over a year before releasing this model? Simply put they did not feel the controller and their firmware was ready for primetime until now; or as Intel put it the “(controller was) not good enough” until now. Intel puts every third party controller through the same extensive testing and validation process as their own controllers – yes this does mean new Intel-branded controllers are in the works for release later this year – and testing of that nature takes a lot of time. This ultra conservatism is why they can have such an ultra low return rate and why they can offer 5 year warranties while other companies can only offer three years of protection and have to live with much higher failure rates.

As you can see above, the 520 series will come in a number of capacities and performance levels. They will range in size from 60GB boot drives all the way up to ultra expensive 480GB model which boasts a massive amount of space but slightly lower theoretical IOPS numbers. Essentially, there should be something here for everyone with prices ranging from $150 to $1000 and possibly higher.


Unlike some past Intel SSDs which tended to sell for a significant premium over the competition, the 510 240GB is priced right in line with other SF2281 drives. Now $509 for volume purchases and likely $519 at retailers isn’t inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination but it isn’t too far above what other companies’ enthusiast grade products go for. This is coupled with an unheard of – for SF2281 drives – five year warranty which should certainly make the projected MSRP more palatable.

On the surface of things the 520 appears to be nothing more than a just another SandForce drive. It uses a 2.5” form factor exterior which is a touch flashier than some with its black plastic fascia and all matte silver body. However, nothing screams “different” like the black topper that can easily be removed to turn it from a standard 9.5mm height drive to a 7mm height one, making the 520 infinitely adaptable for notebooks and desktops alike.


By opening up the 520 we can see that the internals look very similar to just about every other SandForce 2281-based drive on the market. Some of the populated NAND slots may be in a different orientation than usual but there are still 16 ICs in total. The same can be said of the small heat pad which connects the SF2281 controller to the exterior case and turns the chassis into a heat sink, as some other manufacturers use an almost identical layout.


On first glance the NAND modules don’t appear to be special as they are the “same” 25nm Intel branded Compute NAND, 5K erase cycle chips which are found in drives like the Kingston HyperX. However, the real secret to making this drive stand out in a cluttered market can’t actually be seen by the naked eye: there’s a custom firmware lurking behind the scenes which has been developed from the ground up by Intel.
 
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AkG

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The Intel 520: Not Just Another SandForce Drive

The Intel 520: Not Just Another SandForce Drive


“Working through Intel’s extensive validation process ensures the Intel 520 SSD will raise the bar in delivering top-tier performance and superior quality and reliability over the life of the drive.”
- Michael Raam, vice president and general manager of LSI’s Flash Components Division (formerly SandForce)


If you hang around the storage enthusiast community long enough one acronym – usually used in a very derogatory way – will crop up again and again whenever a “new” drive is released: JASFD, otherwise termed as Just Another SandForce Drive. As the name suggests, SandForce’s SD2281 controller has a lot of market penetration and as such literally every high end drive uses it with only a few things to help distinguish one from another. In no particular order these “distinguishing features” are the type of NAND housed within, the label on the outside, warranty and price tag. Up until now all of these drives have used what is basically the same firmware provided by SandForce themselves. Certain companies may do a few minor tweaks, or have access to the firmware revisions faster, but to the storage enthusiast community they are all pretty much the same. Naturally, this made for a very, very boring market without much variation or excitement.

Considering SF2281 drives are now a “dime a dozen” but have been widely available for a long, long time now and its predecessor relied on the Marvell controller, our enthusiasm for the Intel 520 was a bit tempered. In addition, the outgoing 510 was a great alternative to the SF2281 blitzkrieg for non-TRIM capable systems.


So why is this late comer not just another SandForce drive? Simply put it is an entirely different beast with a number of interesting features. The 520 uses Intel Compute NAND rated for 5,000 erase cycles and while this is identical to what’s used in the Kingston HyperX line, as Intel so bluntly put it in a recent conference call: “all other companies get a lower grade NAND”. Intel supposedly reserves absolute best modules from any batch of 25nm NAND made to use in their own drives.

These claims aren’t idle boasts either since they are backed up by cold hard facts. Intel stated that their target for reliability is a failure rate of less than 0.75% per year. Based on market data that places total returns for previous drives at 1% (which includes drives returned under their no hassle return policy), this is certainly an attainable goal. Intel is also putting their money where their mouth is by offering a 5 year warranty on all 520-series drives.

There is also a firm commitment to –as Intel bluntly put it – never “bait and switch”. When the 20nm generation of NAND lands later this year, the 520 will not be moved over to it. The 520 will always use 25nm NAND and when a new variation of this drive comes out it will get a unique model number. So you will never need worry about getting a repeat performance of the controversy that followed (and still doggedly sticks to) a certain company that arbitrarily switched their SF1200 based drives to 25nm NAND without telling customers.


Intel’s Firmware Customization



While everything we talked about above may sound great, nothing really stands out as enough to make the 520 series really stand out. But then there’s the firmware. SandForce has actually done the unthinkable and opened up their code base to Intel, allowing for a complete top to bottom customization to take place. In fact, while any SandForce-created improvements will be quickly available on the 520’s firmware, any advances from Intel’s side of the fence won’t be cascaded down to other SF2281 clients. This firmware is so different that LSI – the new owners of SandForce – have publicly stated the Intel 520 will raise the bar for SSD performance.

The list of changes runs the gamut from more refined background garbage collection routines to faster performance when dealing with compressible and incompressible data types. This last bit is crucial as SF2281 drives aren’t all that great when dealing with already highly compressed data such as .mp3, .mkv, .avi, .mkv and other audio / visual formats.


Alongside the new firmware, Intel has accomplished something that no one else – including OCZ – has been able to do: provide a fully featured toolbox that is actually useful for tasks other than firmware updating. As we already know – and have proven time and time again – SandForce drives aren’t optimal solutions for non-TRIM environments due to their reliance on TRIM commands to maintain performance over time. This is in fact one of the main selling features of the Intel 510 and other Marvel-based drives such as the Crucial M4: they can keep themselves in tip top shape without TRIM.

These preconceptions go out the air lock with the introduction of the 520. It has full access to the Intel Toolbox including manual optimization options so cleaning can be run manually or during a prescheduled maintenance period. Even if you are using the drive in non-TRIM environments this SandForce drive will never, ever get slow no matter how little you let the system idle. To Intel’s credit, the toolbox program doesn’t work with any other SandForce drive – we tried- and thus only the Intel 520 will get this competition killing feature.
 
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Introducing the SandForce SF2000 Family

Introducing the SandForce SF2000 Family



As you are probably well aware by now, there are actually many different models which make up the next generation of SandForce controllers. Much like Intel’s socket 1155 i3/i5/i7 series of processors, all these different SandForce numbers represent slightly different tweaks and features, but all are basically built upon the same SF2000 foundation.

In grand total there are eight SF2000 iterations, but for the most part we won't see most of them in the retail channel. Take for example the SF2141; this is a cut down 4 channel, 24bit RS ECC, SATA 3GB/s controller which probably wont see much fan fare outside of truly budget SSDs. The easiest way to think about this one is to consider it the low end of SF2000 drives. Stepping up a level to 8 channels (and 55bit BCH ECC) but still SATA 3GB/s only is the SF2181 which you can consider the mid range of this generation. This one will probably be featured in more mid-tier next generation SSDs as it has better error correction abilities, yet cannot directly compete with the true stars of the SF200 consumer line: the SF 2281.

The only difference between the two “real” consumer grade SF2000 SATA 6G controllers most likely to be seen (the SF2281 and SF2282) is the one -the 2282- is only for extra large 512GB and higher drives (though the SF2281 can handle 512GB of NAND) and is a larger chip. These are the two flagship products as such have received all the features and all the tweaks which are going to become synonymous with the SF2000 consumer class controllers.

The other four controllers are for enterprise environments and boast features such as eMLC compatibility, Military Erase, SAS and super capacitor capabilities.


Features



The SF2000 controller series is built upon the same architecture as the original SF1000 series. You get DuraWrite, RAISE and all the other features but these have all undergone enhancements and tweaking.


The original SF1000 series had ECC of 24bits per 512byte sector of ECC; whereas the new controller has 55bits. The type of ECC has changed as well. The original used the more simplistic Reed-Solomon (aka “RS”) ECC code which is probably best known from its use in CDs.


Compare and contrast this with the fact that the new controller uses Bose-Chaudhuri-Hocquenghem (aka “BCH”) for its ECC code; which is a more elegant version that targets individual errors. It is also faster and easier for the controller to correct these errors making for a lowered performance impact. AES encryption has also doubled from 128 to 256


The most important of these new features for consumers is of course the new SATA 6Gb/s capabilities. This larger bus instantly translates into much higher sequential performance. The second generation of flagship SandForce controllers has also received a boost on the small file performance end of things thanks in no small part to a 20% increase in IOPS. The first generation SF1200 was rated for up to 50,000 IOPS whereas the new controller family has a rating of 60,000 IOPS.

The other interesting feature which all but the most basic of the SF2000 models boast is SLC NAND abilities. In the past, a manufacturer had to step up the enterprise SF1500 to get SLC compatibility but now they don't have to. Add in lowered power consumption and you can see that while the SF2000 series builds upon the same basic foundation as the previous generation, they are not all that similar when you take a closer look.
 
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AkG

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A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More

A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More



Let’s start with the white elephant in the room and explain why this 240GB drive is in reality a 256GB drive. The Intel 520 has sixteen 16GB NAND chips onboard which gives it a capacity of 256GB, but is seen by the OS as 240GB. Manufacturers use this to help increase IOPS performance and also extend life via wear leveling (as there are always free cells even when the drive is reported as “full”) and even durability since the drive has cells in reserve it can reassign sectors to as the “older” cells die. While 16GB worth of cells set aside for a SandForce drive is not that much compared to some previous models, this is still a lot of space.



As we said, over-provisioning is usually for wear leveling and ITGC as it gives the controller extra cells to work with for keeping all the cells at about the same level of wear. However, this is actually not the main reason SandForce sets aside so much. Wear leveling is at best a secondary reason or even just a “bonus” as this over-provisioning is mainly for the Durawrite and RAISE technology.

Unlike other solid state drives which do not compress the data that is written to them, the SandForce controller does real time loss-less compression. The upside to this is not only smaller lookup tables (and thus no need for off chip cache) but also means less writes will occur to the cells. Lowering how much data is written means that less cells have to be used to perform a given task and this should also result in longer life and even fewer controller cycles being taken up with internal house cleaning (via TRIM or ITGC).



Longevity may be a nice side effect but the real purpose of this compression is so the controller has to use fewer cells to store a given amount of data and thus has to read from fewer cells than any other drive out there (SandForce claims only .5x is written on average). The benefit to this is even at the NAND level storage itself is the bottleneck for any controller and no matter how fast the NAND is, the controller is faster. Cycles are wasted in waiting for data retrieval and if you can reduce the number of cycles wasted, the faster an SSD will be.

Compressing data and thus hopefully getting a nice little speed boost is all well and fine but as anyone who has ever lost data to corruption in a compressed file knows, reliability is much more important. Compressing data means that any potential loss to a bad or dying cell (or cells) will be magnified on these drives so SandForce needed to ensure that the data was kept as secure as possible. While all drives use ECC, to further ensure data protection SandForce implemented another layer of security.



Data protection is where RAISE (Redundant Array of Independent Silicon Elements) comes into the equation. All modern SSDs use various error correction concepts such as ECC. This is because as with any mass produced item there are going to be bad cells while even good cells are going to die off as time goes by. Yet data cannot be lost or the end user’s experience will go from positive to negative. SandForce likes to compare RAISE to that of RAID 5, but unlike RAID 5 which uses a parity stripe, RAISE does not. SandForce does not explicitly say how it does what it does, but what they do say is on top of ECC, redundant data is striped across the array. However, since it is NOT parity data there is no added overheard incurred by calculating the parity stripe.



According to SandForce’s documentation, not only individual bits or even pages of data can be recovered but entire BLOCKS of data can be as well. So if a cell dies or passes on bad data, the controller can compensate, pass on GOOD data, mark the cell as defective and if necessary swap out the entire block for a spare from the over-provisioning area. As we said, SandForce does not get into the nitty-gritty details of how DuraWrite or RAISE works, but the fact that it CAN do all this means that it most likely is writing a hash table along with the data.

SandForce is so sure of their controller abilities that they state the chances of data corruption are not only lower than that of other manufactures’ drives, but actually approaches ZERO chance of data corruption. This is a very bold statement, but only time will tell if their estimates are correct. In the mean time, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt and say that at the very least data corruption is as unlikely with one of these products as it is on any modern MLC drive.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a drive is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto folder on the drive in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account. There is also the SATA controller on your motherboard and how well it works with SSDs & HDDs to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for drives to shine. Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, inclination or monetary funds to do this. For this reason our test-bed will be a more standard motherboard with no mods or high end gear added to it. This is to help replicate what you the end user’s experience will be like.

Even when the hardware issues are taken care of the software itself will have a negative or positive impact on the results. As with the hardware end of things, to obtain the absolute best results you do need to tweak your OS setup; however, just like with the hardware solution most people are not going to do this. For this reason our standard OS setup is used. However, except for the Windows 7 load test times we have done our best to eliminate this issue by having the drive tested as a secondary drive. With the main drive being a Kingston HyperX 240GB Solid State Drive.

For synthetic tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HD Tune, Crystal Disk Benchmark, IOMeter, AS-SSD, Anvil Storage Utilities and PCMark 7.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long a single 10GB rar file took to copy to and then from the devices. We also used 10gb of small files (from 100kb to 200MB) with a total 12,000 files in 400 subfolders.

For all testing a Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard was used, running Windows 7 64bit Ultimate edition. All drives were tested using AHCI mode using Intel RST 10 drivers.

All tests were run 4 times and average results are represented.

In between each test suite runs (with the exception being IOMeter which was done after every run) the drives are cleaned with either HDDerase, SaniErase or OCZ SSDToolbox and then quick formatted to make sure that they were in optimum condition for the next test suite.

Processor: Core i5 2500
Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe
Memory: 8GB Corsair Vengeance LP “blue”
Graphics card: Asus 5550 passive
Hard Drive: Kingston HyperX 240GB, OCZ 480GB RevoDrive3 x2
Power Supply: XFX 850

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OCZ Vertex 2 100GB
: 1.33
OCZ Vertex 3 MI 240GB: 2.1.5
Corsair Force 3 GT 120GB: 1.3.3
Patriot Pyro 120GB: 3.3.2
Kingston HyperX 240GB: 3.3.2
Crucial M4 256GB: 0009
Mushkin Chronos 120GB: 3.3.2
Corsair Performance Pro 256GB: 1.0
Intel 520: 400i
 
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AkG

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Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. The long test was run to give a slightly more accurate picture. We don’t put much stock in Burst speed readings and thus we no longer included it. The most important number is the Average Speed number. This number will tell you what to expect from a given drive in normal, day to day operations. The higher the average the faster your entire system will seem.



A phrase like “Top of the charts” does not do justice in describing the 520's sequential performance. With an average speed well above that of its nearest competitor, Intel certainly wasn't stretching things when they said their firmware allowed for faster performance.


Write Performance


For this benchmark HD Tune Pro was used. To run the write benchmark on a drive, you must first remove all partitions from that drive and then and only then will it allow you to run this test. Unlike some other benchmarking utilities the HD Tune Pro writes across the full area of the drive, thus it easily shows any weakness a drive may have.



Once again this Intel branded SandForce drive a running custom firmware is not only the best SandForce drive, but is simply the best SSD we have seen to date. Both its – all important – minimum and average sequential performance are simply in a different league from anything we have ever seen. It may be “late to the party” but with numbers like this it certainly knows how to make a grand entrance.
 
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AkG

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ATTO Disk Benchmark

ATTO Disk Benchmark


The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.





While the power curves in ATTO are not the slam dunk success like the sequential performance is, only the Vertex 3 MaxIOPS is able to meet – and very occasionally – beat the 510. That's quite impressive since the MaxIOPS version needs Toggle Mode NAND to attain its numbers.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark / PCMark 7

Crystal DiskMark


Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your hard drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB.





While the Vertex 3 MaxIOPS and its Toggle Mode NAND is able to beat the 520 240GB in some of these tests, and the Intel is able to do the same on others, most of the results are close enough to be considered a tie. With that being said, the Intel drive does edge out the “might MI” as when the Intel beats it, it really beats it with tangible performance increases, yet never really loses to the MaxIOPS – or any drive for that matter - by the same margin.


PCMark 7


While there are numerous suites of tests that make up PCMark 7, only one is pertinent: the HDD Suite. The HDD Suite consists of numerous tests that try and replicate real world drive usage. Everything from how long a simulated virus scan takes to complete, to MS Vista start up time to game load time is tested in these core tests; however we do not consider this anything other than just another suite of synthetic tests. For this reason, while each test is scored individually we have opted to include only the overall score.



Once again the Intel 520 is able to outperform every other drive we have tested to date. It may only be able to slightly edge out some like the OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS 240GB drive, but none the less, it does beat them all and make them all seem like pale imitations of what a SandForce 2281 drive should look and act like.
 
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AkG

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AS-SSD / Anvil Storage Utilities Pro

AS-SSD


AS-SSD is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and small 4K read/write speeds as well as 4K file speed at a queue depth of 6. While its primary goal is to accurately test Solid State Drives, it does equally well on all storage mediums it just takes longer to run each test as each test reads or writes 1GB of data.





Once again we are seeing across the board performance increases which should -hopefully - result in tangible real world performance improvements.


Anvil Storage Utilities Pro


Much like AS-SSD, Anvil Pro was created to quickly and easily – yet accurately – test your drives. While it is still in the Beta stages it is a versatile and powerful little program. Currently it can test numerous read / write scenarios but two in particular stand out for us: 4K queue depth of 4 and 4K queue depth of 16. A queue depth of four along with 4K sectors can be equated to what most users will experience in an OS scenario while 16 depth will be encountered only by power users and the like. We have also included the 4k queue depth 1 results to help put these two other numbers in their proper perspective. All settings were left in their default states and the test size was set to 1GB.





Interestingly enough it appears that the Intel 520 is not infallible after all and its chart domination will not be all encompassing. Under certain circumstances the advantages Toggle Mode NAND afforded the mighty OCZ Vertex 3 MaxIOPS can overcome refined firmware. Brute force may not be as pretty as an elegant solution but it can be just effective. More importantly, the differences are not –for the most part – all that great nor all encompassing and certainly not enough for us to change our opinion on the 520.
 
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IOMETER

IOMETER


IOMeter is heavily weighted towards the server end of things, and since we here at HWC are more End User centric we will be setting and judging the results of IOMeter a little bit differently than most. To test each drive we ran 5 test runs per HDD (1,4,16,64,128 queue depth) each test having 8 parts, each part lasting 10 min w/ an additional 20 second ramp up. The 8 subparts were set to run 100% random, 80% read 20% write; testing 512b, 1k, 2k,4k,8k,16k,3xk,64k size chunks of data. When each test is finished IOMeter spits out a report, in that reports each of the 8 subtests are given a score in I/Os per second. We then take these 8 numbers add them together and divide by 8. This gives us an average score for that particular queue depth that is heavily weighted for single user environments.



Once again the 520's refined firmware is not able to overcome the sheer power that Toggle Mode NAND can offer. This is a shame as Intel does consider the server market a key area and IOMeter does replicate some server related tasks. Fortunately this particular Intel model is not meant for the server environment, it is meant for OEM laptops and desktop systems, prosumers, workstations and the enthusiast market. In these markets, ultra dense queue depths are not that common and are a rare enough occurrence as to not be a deciding factor for most.
 
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