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Intel 520 240GB SSD RAID 0 Performance Review

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AkG

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In many ways Intel's new 520 240GB is one of the best SSDs currently on the market. With its unique mixture of large capacities, reasonable price – for a flagship SSD – and that amazing firmware which allows for near instant cleaning via the Toolbox, it’s almost impossible to find something to complain about. But like the benchmark junkies we are, with all of this performance on tap we were craving even more speed so the natural progression of things led us to a RAID setup. Intel was more than happy to feed our little fetish so what we’ve got for you today is a pair of 520 240GB drives

While the Intel RST driver team is hard at work fulfilling a promise to the enthusiast community to release a driver that allows for TRIM to be implemented regardless of how many drives are installed, the reality is that RAID still leads to a non-TRIM environment. More importantly it is a non-TRIM environment issue which cannot be alleviated via the Intel Toolbox. This means Intel’s 520 has to rely solely on the Idle Time / Background Garbage collection routines built into its custom firmware.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that two of these drives will bring some incredible benchmark numbers but there is one significant tradeoff. A single 520 series drive is currently the last word in SSD performance but at a shade over $1000, a RAID solution certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. And yet if you are willing to pay the price, the investment could bring your computing experience to a whole new level.

 
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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

SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):

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.


As with any RAID configuration, sequential speed is basically double that of a single drive.


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, the speeds of the RAID array are basically double that of a single 520 240GB drive. Actually it is slightly higher than twice but this minor variance is well within tolerances.
 
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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.




Interestingly enough these power curves may look great but are not consistently twice that of a 520 and it varies from about 180% to 200%. On the positive side, the ultra small file size performance is simply astronomical and even a RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB can't match this two drive configuration. The reason for this is simple: the RevoDrive 3 x2 relies on inferior NAND and CPU cycles to reach its performance, resulting in a CPU bottleneck which these RAID’ed Intel 520 drives do not suffer from.
 
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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.





These numbers are interesting to say the least. Once again we see an across the board dominance of the 520 Raid array at sequential, 512 and 4k single queue depth numbers but at a fairly deep 32 queue depth the RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB’s four SF2281 controllers are able to pull out ahead. With that being said, for home users -and to a lesser extent in workstation environments-, Intel’s performance will be a better fit as deep queue depths are not a common occurrence.


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.


As expected this Raid 0 array simply dominates PCMark 7’s storage test suite. Even the mighty RevoDrive 3 x2 is brought low thanks to the superior NAND and superior firmware that Intel has bestowed upon this new powerhouse performer.
 
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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.





As with Crystal DiskMark the only “drive” which can come even close to this RAID array is the OCZ RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB. Even then it is only at deep queue depths that the pair of 520s lose.


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 point where the Intel 520 240GB drive array and a RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB swap places is at about the 16 queue depth.
 
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AkG

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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.



This is where the RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB's four SF2281 controllers finally show their true power. Even though the Intel 520’s vary between a performance improvement of 1.95 to 2.00, at the end of the day the fact still remains that these custom firmware equipped drives still only have a single SF2281 controller. Custom firmware and higher performance NAND or not, twice the controller power is simply too much of a performance gap to bridge.
 
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AkG

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Windows 7 Start Up / Adobe CS5 Load Time

Windows 7 Start Up with Boot Time A/V Scan Performance


When it comes to hard drive performance there is one area that even the most oblivious user notices: how long it takes to load the Operating System. Where Windows 7 has become nearly ubiquitous for solid state drive enthusiasts we have chosen Windows 7 64bit Ultimate as our Operating System. In previous load time tests we would use the Anti-Virus splash screen as our finish line; this however is no longer the case. We have not only added in a secondary Anti-Virus to load on startup, but also an anti-malware program. We have set Super Anti-Spyware to initiate a quick scan on Windows start-up and the completion of the quick scan will be our new finish line.



The RevoDrive 3 may be able to hold on to first place, but it is a very close call with the two drive RAID array nipping closely at its heels. Considering the extended warranty, lower price and minimal CPU resources needed from such a simple RAID 0 array, the RevoDrive 3 x2 is not looking like such a great option anymore.


Adobe CS5 Load Time


Photoshop is a notoriously slow loading program under the best of circumstances, and while the latest version is actually pretty decent, when you add in a bunch of extra brushes and the such you get a really great torture test which can bring even the best of the best to their knees. Let’s see how our review unit faired in the Adobe crucible!


As we stated in the Intel 520 review, when Adobe CS5 is not bloated enough to really test the limits of a given storage item you know you are dealing with a truly potent setup.
 
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AkG

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Firefox Offline / Real World Data Transfers

Firefox Portable Offline Performance


Firefox is notorious for being slow on loading tabs in offline mode once the number of pages to be opened grows larger than a dozen or so. We can think of fewer worse case scenarios than having 100 tabs set to reload in offline mode upon Firefox startup, but this is exactly what we have done here.

By having 100 pages open in Firefox portable, setting Firefox to reload the last session upon next session start and then setting it to offline mode, we are able to easily recreate a worse case scenario. Since we are using Firefox portable all files are easily positioned in one location, making it simple to repeat the test as necessary. In order to ensure repetition, before touching the Firefox portable files, we have backed them up into a .rar file and only extracted a copy of it to the test device.




Due to the nature of this test, it is no surprise that the dual Intel setup can't compete against a RevoDrive 3 x2 480GB. With that being said, RAID performance is still top notch.


Real World Data Transfers


No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it can not really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy (set to 1 file depth) and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.






Again, we see no surprises here with the Intel RAID setup handily winning both tests as other solutions tend to sputter out.
 
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AkG

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NON-TRIM Environment Testing

NON-TRIM Environment Testing


In many ways, a Intel 520 RAID array should be severely handicapped in an environment that doesn’t support TRIM. To recreate this, we first modified our testbed so that it would not pass on the necessary cleaning commands. Meanwhile, to artificially induce a degrade state we ran eight hours of IOMeter set to 100% random, 100% write, 4k chunks of data at a 64 queue depth across the entire array’s capacity. At the end of this test, the IOMeter file is deleted and the drive was then tested. This will replicate drive performance after extended heavy usage prior to any self maintenance routines kicking in and is indicated by the “Dirty” results below.

In order to allow each drive’s self-maintenance routines to kick in, we then wait 30 minutes (Dirty + 30 results) with the system at idle and rerun the tests.

To help give as both a detailed and practical overall picture of a given drive’s ability in this severe environment we have chosen two tests: one synthetic and the other more real world in nature.



Synthetic Results


Since reads are usually not greatly affected by a degraded state, for our synthetic non-trim test, we have chosen our standard sequential write test. By opting for this test and not one of our other shorter tests, the controller will not be able to compensate for being in a degraded state by using over-provisioning, caching or other similar buffers to hide the true state of the drive. To put it simply, by writing data across the entire drive, we will quickly see how big an impact this environment will have on them.



Real World Results


For a real world application we have opted for our standard Vista load time test.



This really is where the metal meets the road as far as we are concerned. The performance of a brand new RAID array is great for showing potential performance but long term viability is what enthusiasts should be looking for.

As you can see, when you hammer the array well beyond the point of what will be encountered in real world scenarios, the garbage collection routines built into the drives offer a good amount of performance retention over time. In addition, this array has so much performance to burn that it can successfully obfuscate a degraded state.

Unfortunately, the Intel Toolbox is unable to work its magic on the drives while they are in an array, but this isn't the deal breaker it would appear to be. The reason for this is twofold: even in a heavily degraded state, the aforementioned cleaning routines can quickly bring back most of the array's performance and we highly doubt that anyone would actually this drop-off in the first place.

Remember, our usual degraded state test uses ALL of the NAND, whereas in more realistic scenarios at least some NAND will be clean for use. For anyone who doesn't press constantly high I/O loads upon their drives (and we doubt anyone in a non-workstation environment would), moderate amounts of idle time will be all that it takes to clean things up.
 
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