It’s a Mad World: Not All SF-1200s Perform Alike

OCZ was the first from our community to really embrace SandForce. It’s my understanding that the two companies have a very close relationship, and OCZ has committed a lot of resources to SandForce and its products. OCZ took the early risk that others would not. While other companies are working with SF today, OCZ appears to have been the first from the SSD makers we cover on the site.

In exchange for their cooperation and support, SandForce gave OCZ a couple of things. First was the unique SF-1500 used in the Vertex LE at competitive prices (and minus some of the enterprise features). This gave OCZ a huge head start on the competition. The second thing SandForce gave OCZ was the rights to an exclusive firmware for the SF-1200. This firmware would give OCZ the small file random write performance of the SF-1500, but with the rest of the feature set of the SF-1200. This special firmware is going to be used in the upcoming Vertex 2 SSD.

The rest of SandForce’s customers would get the standard SF-1200 firmware, which allows the drive to run at 10,000 sustained 4K random IOPS. Other SF-1200 drives from OCZ, such as the upcoming Agility 2, would also use this standard SF-1200 firmware. The special firmware is only for the Vertex 2 at this point.

SandForce’s firmware has been in release candidate (RC) stage for the past couple of months. Internally SandForce calls this version 3.0.1 and has communicated to all of its partners what RC vs. MP (mass production) firmware entails:


This slide is shared with all SF partners.

Two things are true about this RC firmware: 1) it doesn’t limit small file random write speed on the SF-1200, and 2) there is a known reliability issue that could result in a dead drive (similar to what happened to my Vertex 2 Pro earlier this year).

And here’s where things get messy. SandForce distributed 3.0.1 to all of its partners (so much for that exclusivity agreement), and some of its partners have decided to sample reviewers or even ship based on 3.0.1. Note that even OCZ’s Vertex LE shipped using the SF-1500 version of this firmware. If SandForce indeed distributed the above slide to all of its partners, no drive should've shipped with RC firmware. That's a separate issue entirely and I've been working with both SandForce and the companies involved to see what we can do about curbing this (or at least get me the information so that I can make it clear when a product is using non-MP firmware).

The Corsair Force drive that has been sent out for reviews and that’s currently shipping today uses SandForce’s 3.0.1 firmware.

Naturally, I called up Corsair to figure out what’s going on. Corsair explained to me that the reliability problem was related to a power saving feature on the controller that Corsair simply disabled and thus avoided the issue entirely. I have yet to find a repeatable way to reproduce the bug, but the power data from our testing corroborates what Corsair is saying:

Corsair’s drive uses more power than OCZ’s Vertex LE. While it could be for a number of reasons, it’s apparently due to this power saving feature being disabled. Unless I’m wrong, Corsair appears to have circumvented the known reliability issue and is shipping product it feels is safe into the market.

Now we get to the other problem. The performance of 3.0.1 is the same as OCZ’s exclusive SF-1200 firmware, because the firmwares are the same. However SandForce has recently released its first MP firmware: 3.0.5. This firmware, as you’d expect, caps small file random write performance on all SF-1200 drives except for the Vertex 2 in accordance with SandForce’s agreement with OCZ. The SF-1500 version of this firmware doesn’t change performance, but it does supposedly fix the reliability problems and is available for Vertex LE owners here.

Corsair is currently testing the 3.0.5 revision for its drive but hasn’t shared it with me yet. Corsair wasn’t aware that performance dropped with this revision until I called yesterday. The release notes don’t indicate anything of the sort, Corsair was kept completely in the dark on this. Why didn’t SandForce tell Corsair? Because although it drops performance, the new firmware still runs the SF-1200 at its intended spec. The chip will continue to perform as advertised, just slower than with the RC firmware and slower than OCZ’s Vertex 2.

SF-1200 vs. SF-1500 Where Do We Go From Here?
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  • Crypticone - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    Remember this is the same company that asked reviewers to NOT open the product. They started out with one product, got it reviewed favorably then switched to a lesser and much less expensive chip and left prices and model numbers the same.

    If that is not bait and switch in your mind, I am not sure what is..
    Reply
  • ggathagan - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    After re-reading willscary's comment, I have to agree that I was wrong on the bait-and-switch aspect of it.

    If OWC had sent an email stating that there had been a spec change and asking if the drives were still desired, that would be one thing.

    Since they were not upfront with the change to customers who had already purchased, but had not yet received their drives, you are correct; clearly duplicitous.
    Reply
  • 529th - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    So, Corsair found that a power saving feature on the Sandforce controllers was the culprit to it's reliability stigma?

    Then they went ahead and fixed it with their own firmware thus negating the "MP" released by Sandforce thereby maintaining Vertex 2 like performance?

    My main concern is for my 2 OCZ Vertex LE SSD drives. One in the machine I have now: firmware 1.0; and on that should be delivered the 19th. So, if Sandforce borrows the idea from Corsair, if indeed that is the reliability problem, then the next time you put the OCZ Vertex LE on the 2mb power consumption it should relatively read the same as the Corsair Force 100 (Sandforce 1200) SSD drive right? Anand, could you do that for us? Thanks

    529th
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    I'm not sure what the 3.0.5 fix is for the power state bug. I've been meaning to put that fw on my Vertex LE but haven't had the opportunity to yet. As soon as I do, I will let you know :)

    In light of all of these issues, both drives with their latest firmware will be going in mission critical systems in my office. Gonna try and break em :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • GullLars - Saturday, April 17, 2010 - link

    Putting them into mission critical systems in order to try to break them... Sounds kind of reckless if the systems are indeed mission critical. If they are riggs that simulate servers/workstations that typically require mission critical storage, it would be an entirely different scenario.

    Great reporting on this kind of stuff BTW, keep it up ;)

    It makes me kind of sad to see this kind of sketchy an unorganized behaviour from a company that seems to have great engineering skills. I've been impressed with their tech and architecture since they came out of stealth mode last spring, and the benchmarks didn't disappoint (only the price tag :P). IMO they should not cripple the drives if it's not neccesary due to the lack of the supercap, and even then, providing the full performance FW to enthusiasts willing to take the risk of dataloss would be a good idea to gain goodwill.
    I hope manifacturers will provide enthusiasts with the 3.0.1 FW with the power savings feature disabled (modded FW), even if they decide to go for the reduced performance MP FW SF-1200 drives off the shelves.
    Reply
  • nycromes - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    Anand,

    I was highly critical of you in another review the other day. That being said, articles like this are what I have come to expect from Anandtech. In depth explanations of what is going on with new tech, and as evidenced here, sometimes what is going on in the business as well. Thanks for digging deeper into this situation and letting us all in on what is going on. Its sad to see companies do this to both trusted partners, customers, and the industry.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    The criticism is always welcome - I take everything to heart. I am trying to do the best job possible here and you guys really help me in doing that. You give me encouragement when you feel that I've done a good job and you give me pointers on how to be better when you feel that I haven't. It's free feedback from you all and I do appreciate it, regardless of tone :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • SANDAR - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    Anand Shimpi: proving once again that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but having a highly trafficked website is akin to a boatload of Hellfire Missiles. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    You rock :) Reply
  • willscary - Friday, April 16, 2010 - link

    After this change, I have decided to go back to Crucial 128GB M225s for the two lesser machines. I have been using these with great success for a couple months now. Instead of the 200GB OWC, I am now torn between the 200GB OCZ Vertex LE and the Crucial offerings. The new Crucial 300 looks much faster, but the M225 is much cheaper and has a 5 year warranty.

    This is a quickly changing technology, I know. However, I feel that each manufacturer and supplier MUST be truthful about the products they are selling. As said above, a simple email and perhaps a slight refund would have done wonders in my case, but I sure don't want to pay for a much more expensive product and get less. As I said earlier...to me, that is the definition of Bait and Switch, even if the above poster was correct and Sandforce shipped a different controller. I, however, doubt that OWC did not know, or at least that they would not have either rejected the shipment when they found out or demanded credit for the cheaper controllers.
    Reply

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