Review: Intel's new 'Cherryville' SSD 520 drive

Solid state drive offers lower price, higher performance than predecessor offering, along with encryption and compression -- what's not to like?

Intel Monday started shipping its fastest solid-state drive (SSD), the first to use the SandForce (now LSI) SFI-2281 NAND flash controller, which promises 500MB/sec-plus performance.

"We believe high-RPM hard drives are dead," said Troy Winslow, director of product marketing at Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group. "We believe both 10,000 and 15,000 rpm hard drives ... will be replaced with an SSD in the future."

He noted that "100% of Intel employees -- 85,000 people -- have SSDs in their systems."

Don't be shocked. The price of consumer-class SSDs is expected to drop to $1 per gigabyte this year. Client-class SSDs are hovering around $2.25 to $2.50/GB.

While that's still about 10 times the cost of high-capacity SATA desktop or laptop hard disk drives, it's only two to five times the price of a 15,000 rpm Fibre Channel or SAS drive. Considering that an SSD can offer more than 100 times the performance of a hard drive, which one would you pick?

The specs

True to its controller, the 520 Series SSD, code-named 'Cherryville,' offers impressive performance in terms of read/writes and I/Os per second (IOPS) when using a system with a SATA 3.0 6Gbit/sec interface, Intel says. The drive can deliver up to 80,000 4K-block random write IOPS and up to 50,000 4K random read IOPS. With regard to sequential read/writes, it offers up to 550MB/sec and 520MB/sec, respectively -- according to Intel's specification sheet.

The read/write speeds drop significantly when used on the SATA 2.0 3Gbps interface that most PCs and laptops sport today because it creates a bottleneck. On a SATA 2.0 interface, the 520 Series offers a maximum 280MB/sec sequential read rate and 280MB/sec sequential write rate.

Cherryville
Intel's "Cherryville" 520 Series SSD

The 520 Series SSD is significantly faster than its predecessor, the 510 Series SSD, particularly with regard to writes; both drives support the SATA 3.0 6Gbit/sec interface that's becoming standard in new systems.

Intel's predecessor -- the 510 series drive -- used a controller from Marvell. That drive sported sequential read/write performance of up to 500MB/sec and 315MB/sec, respectively, and random read/write IOPS of 20,000 and 8,000, respectively.

Compared to other SATA 3.0 drives, Intel's new line holds up nicely.

For example, Samsung's latest high-performance SSD, the PM830, offers sequential read/write speeds of 500MB and 350MB/sec, respectively. OCZ's Octane drive delivers up to 560MB/sec read performance and up to 45,000 random IOPS. The Octane drive is available with a capacity of up to 1TB.

Intel's drive also takes it easy on laptop batteries, sipping a maximum of 5.25 volts while operating and 600 milliwatts when idle, Intel says.

Comparison
The 520 Series SSD compared to predecessors

What's the difference?

The older Intel 510 Series SSD has a three-year warranty, while the 520 Series has a five-year warranty. Intel said the new drive has a Mean Time Between Failures rate of 1.2 million hours, the same as the older model.

The 520 series is the first mass-produced drive by Intel using 25nm NAND flash memory; the 510 Series drive used 34nm NAND.

Intel and Micron have both created NAND flash using circuitry at the 20nm level, but they've yet to use it in a drive. Intel said that's coming later this year.

"We're in mass production with 20nm NAND," Winslow said. "That's 16GB on a single chip and we can stack chips 8 high in package, which gives you terabit in a single solution [NAND flash pack]. We will put that into SSDs later this year."

Translation? Intel will be putting out SSDs with 1TB of capacity by the beginning of 2013, according to Winslow.

Size comparison
A size comparison between IMFT's current NAND flash chips

Another advantage of using more dense memory is that it helps lower the overall cost of production, which translates into somewhat lower prices.

Based on 1,000 unit quantities, the older 510 series SSD sold for $584 for a 250GB model and $284 for a 120GB unit.

The new 520 Series SSD retails for $149 for a 60GB model, $229 for 120GB, $369 for 180GB, $509 for 240GB and $999 for 480GB (also based on 1,000 unit quantities).

If we break that down into price per gigabyte, which results in an apples-to-apples comparison, Intel charged $2.34 per gigabyte for the 510 series compared to the $2.12 per gigabyte price for the new drive.

Intel said it ran Sandforce's SF-2281 NAND flash controller through its paces for the past year in an effort to avoid past problems with SSDs.

Intel also offers the 256-bit AES encryption algorithm to natively secure data as an option for buyers of the new drive.

Unlike the predecessor offering, Intel's new SSD offers data compression, which amounts to a rate of about 60% for 75% of file types. For example, email on Microsoft Outlook can be compressed at a rate of 60%, Intel's spec sheets show, while Microsoft documents can be compressed at rates of up to 85%.

Benchmark tests

There's aren't a lot of laptops out there that sport a SATA 6.0 disk drive interface, though they have started tricking out.

To test the new drive, I used a MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.6.8, or Snow Leopard, with a 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7 processor and 4GB of memory.

In my first test, I used Xbench v1.3 benchmarking software.

The results were good, but not "Intel spec sheet" good. Xbench showed the SSD had sequential read/write speed of 303MB/sec and 324MB/sec, respectively. It had a random read/write speed of 303MB/sec and 338MB/sec, respectively.

Benchmark
Xbench benchmark results

Blackmagic benchmarking tests revealed a maximum read rate of 456MB/sec and a write rate of 241MB/sec using 4K blocks.

Benchmark
Blackmagic benchmark results

In the next test, I transferred a 1.19GB file with 327 .jpg photos in just 9 seconds.

I saved the best results -- boot times -- for last.

In three separate tests, I came up with a cold start-up that took just 16 seconds and a system reboot that took just 15 seconds.

Overall, Intel has come out with a very fast drive that will save your battery, save your wallet (at least in terms of SSD cost) and provide some great data protection and compression features.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and healthcare IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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