SandForce was first to announce and preview its 2011 SSD controller technology. We first talked about the controller late last year, got a sneak peak at its performance this year at CES and then just a couple of months ago brought you a performance preview based on pre-production hardware and firmware from OCZ. Although the Vertex 3 shipment target was originally scheduled for March, thanks to a lot of testing and four new firmware revisions since I previewed the drive, the officially release got pushed back to April.

What I have in my hands is retail 120GB Vertex 3 with what OCZ is calling its final, production worthy client firmware. The Vertex 3 Pro has been pushed back a bit as the controller/firmware still have to make it through more testing and validation.

I'll get to the 120GB Vertex 3 and how its performance differs from the 240GB drive we previewed not too long ago, but first there are a few somewhat-related issues I have to get off my chest.

The Spectek Issue

Last month I wrote that OCZ had grown up after announcing the acquisition of Indilinx, a SSD controller manufacturer that was quite popular in 2009. The Indilinx deal has now officially closed and OCZ is the proud owner of the controller company for a relatively paltry $32M in OCZ stock.

The Indilinx acquisition doesn't mean much for OCZ today, however in the long run it should give OCZ at least a fighting chance at being a player in the SSD space. Keep in mind that OCZ is now fighting a battle on two fronts. Above OCZ in the chain are companies like Intel, Micron and Samsung. These are all companies with their own foundries and either produce the NAND that goes into their SSDs or the controllers as well. Below OCZ are companies like Corsair, G.Skill, Patriot and OWC. These are more of OCZ's traditional competitors, mostly acting as assembly houses or just rebadging OEM drives (Corsair is a recent exception as it has its own firmware/controller combination with the P3 series).

By acquiring Indilinx OCZ takes one more step up the ladder towards the Intel/Micron/Samsung group. Unfortunately at that level, there's a new problem: NAND supply.

NAND Flash is not unlike any other commodity. Its price is subject to variation based on a myriad of factors. If you control the fabs, then you generally have a good idea of what's coming. There's still a great deal of volatility even for a fab owner, process technologies are very difficult to roll out and there is always the risk of issues in manufacturing, but generally speaking you've got a better chance of supply and controlled costs if you're making the NAND. If you don't control the fabs, you're at their mercy. While buying Indilinx gave OCZ the ability to be independent of any controller maker if it wanted to, OCZ is still at the mercy of the NAND manufacturers.


Intel NAND

Currently OCZ ships drives with NAND from four different companies: Intel, Micron, Spectek and Hynix. The Intel and Micron stuff is available in both 34nm and 25nm flavors, Spectek is strictly 34nm and Hynix is 32nm.

Each NAND supplier has its own list of parts with their own list of specifications. While they're generally comparable in terms of reliability and performance, there is some variance not just on the NAND side but how controllers interact with the aforementioned NAND.

Approximately 90% of what OCZ ships in the Vertex 2 and 3 is using Intel or Micron NAND. Those two tend to be the most interchangeable as they physically come from the same plant. Intel/Micron have also been on the forefront of driving new process technologies so it makes sense to ship as much of that stuff as you can given the promise of lower costs.

Last month OWC published a blog accusing OCZ of shipping inferior NAND on the Vertex 2. OWC requested a drive from OCZ and it was built using 34nm Spectek NAND. Spectek, for those of you who aren't familiar, is a subsidiary of Micron (much like Crucial is a subsidiary of Micron). IMFT manufactures the NAND, the Micron side of it takes and packages it - some of it is used or sold by Micron, some of it is "sold" to Crucial and some of it is "sold" to Spectek. Only Spectek adds its own branding to the NAND.

OWC published this photo of the NAND used in their Vertex 2 sample:

I don't know the cause of the bad blood between OWC and OCZ nor do I believe it's relevant. What I do know is the following:

The 34nm Spectek parts pictured above are rated at 3000 program/erase cycles. I've already established that 3000 cycles is more than enough for a desktop workload with a reasonably smart controller. Given the extremely low write amplification I've measured on SandForce drives, I don't believe 3000 cycles is an issue. It's also worth noting that 3000 cycles is at the lower end for what's industry standard for 25nm/34nm NAND. Micron branded parts are also rated at 3000 cycles, however I've heard that's a conservative rating.

If you order NAND from Spectek you'll know that the -AL on the part number is the highest grade that Spectek sells; it stands for "Full spec w/ tighter requirements". I don't know what Spectek's testing or validation methodology are but the NAND pictured above is the highest grade Spectek sells and it's rated at 3000 p/e cycles. This is the same quantity of information I know about Intel NAND and Micron NAND. It's quite possible that the Spectek branded stuff is somehow worse, I just don't have any information that shows me it is.

OCZ insists that there's no difference between the Spectek stuff and standard Micron 34nm NAND. Given that the NAND comes out of the same fab and carries the same p/e rating, the story is plausible. Unless OWC has done some specific testing on this NAND to show that it's unfit for use in an SSD, I'm going to call this myth busted.

The Real Issue
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  • fixxxer0 - Wednesday, April 06, 2011 - link

    after being disappointed in some way with just about every (large) company i've dealt with, whether it be insurance, auto makers, electronics, appliances, you name it... i am glad to see one finally accepting responsibility, and doing the right thing.

    i do not expect 100% perfection from every company at all times. i know sometime things are DOA, or defective, or flawed. but to actually have a company take that extra step and make it right without you having to sue them is commendable.

    personally, when it comes time on deciding which drive to go with, it will mainly be on the numbers, but OCZ's ethics will definitely give them the edge if there is a toss up.
    Reply
  • kensiko - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    It's true, I never saw any big company letting customers having so much impact on them. The forum is really the big thing here. Reply
  • lukechip - Wednesday, April 06, 2011 - link

    I've just bought an 80GB Vertex 2. OCZ state that only "E" parts are affected, but at StorageReview, they show that they had a non "E" part which contained 25nm NAND. Also, OCZ say that the only parts affected are the 60 GB and 120 GB models.

    I've just purchased an 80 GB model, and have no idea what is inside it, nor whether I'd prefer it to be an 'old' one or a 'new' one.

    The new SKUs that Anand listed indicate that moving forwards, all 80, 160 and 200 GB Vertex 2 units will be 25nm only, and all 60, 120 and 240 GB Vertex 2 units will be 34nm only. I can't imagine they can keep this up for long, as 34nm runs out and they have to move the 60, 120 and 240 GB models to 25 nm.

    What I suspect is that prior to 25 nm NAND becoming available, all 80 GB units used the Hynix 32 nm NAND. Based on Anand's tests, I suspect this mean they were the worst performing units in the line up. 80 GB units built using the new 25 nm NAND would actually perform better than those built with Hynix 32 nm NAND.

    So whereas 60 GB and 120 GB customers really want to have a unit based on 34 nm NAND, 80 GB customers like me really want to have a drive based on 25 nm NAND. Hence OCZ are not offering replacements for 80 GB units. A new 80 GB unit is better than an old 80 GB unit, even though it is not as good as an old 60 GB unit

    So my questions are:

    1/ Is what I am suggesting above true ?
    2/ How can I tell what NAND I've got ? I've updated the firmware on my 80 GB unit soon after buying it, so the approach of using firmware version to determine NAND type doesn't seem too reliable to me ?

    Personally, I find my unit plenty fast enough. And I understand that OCZ and other SSD vendors must accomodate what their suppliers present them with. However the lack of tranparency, and the "lucky dip" approach that we have to take when buying an SSD from OCZ lead me to conclude that they

    1/ don't respect their customers and/or
    2/ are very naive and stupid to expect that customers won't notice them pulling a 'bait and switch'
    Reply
  • B3an - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    Anand... you seem to have forgotten something in your conclusion. You say it's best to go for the 240GB if torn between that and the 120GB. But being as two 120GB Vertex 3's are only very slightly more expensive than the 240GB version, wouldn't it make more sense to just get two 120GB's for RAID 0? Because you'd get considerably better performance than the 240GB then considering how well SSD's scale in RAID 0.

    Really great and interesting review BTW.
    Reply
  • Alopex - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    I'd really like to see this question addressed, as well. According to several tests, SSDs scale in pretty much all categories after a minimal queue depth. It seems like the random reads here are the 120gb model's achilles' heel, but given the linearity of the scaling, it might be safe-ish to assume that 2x 120gb RAID 0 will equal 1x 240gb. For nearly the same price, it would then seem you get the same storage size, fixed the discrepancy between the two models, and hopefully see significant performance gains in the other categories like sequential read/write.

    I'm building a new computer at the moment, and in light of this article, I'm still planning to go with 2x 120gb Vertex 3s in RAID 0, unless someone can provide a convincing argument to do otherwise. At the moment, the only thing that really makes me hesitate is to see what the other vendors have planned for "next-gen" SSD performance. Then again, if I had that attitude I'd be waiting forever ;-)

    Many thanks for the article, though!
    Reply
  • casteve - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    No TRIM available in RAID. Reply
  • B3an - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    Not a big problem. I've had 3 different SSD sets in RAID 0 over the years, and i've not needed TRIM. And a certain crappy OS with a fruity theme dont even support TRIM without a hack job. Reply
  • ComputerNovice22 - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    You wrote "
    In the worst case comparison the F120 we have here is 30% faster than your 34nm Hynix Vertex 2."

    I believe you meant 32nm Hynix, I'm not sure I'm right or not and I'm not trying to be one of those people that just likes to be right either, just wanted to let you know just in-case.

    On another note though I LOVE the article, I bought a vertex 2 recently and I was very angry with OCZ after I hooked it up and realized it was a 25nm SSD ... I ended up just buying a 120Gb (510 elm-crest)
    Reply
  • Lux88 - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    1. Thank you for investigating NAND performance so thoroughly.
    2. Thank you for benching drives with "common" capacities.
    3. Thank you for protecting consumer interests.

    Great article. Great site. Fantastic Anand.
    Reply
  • sor - Thursday, April 07, 2011 - link

    I worked at a Micron test facility years ago. I can only speak for DRAM, but I imagine NAND is much the same. Whenever someone drops a tray of chips and they go sprawling all over the floor... SpekTek. Whenever a machine explodes and starts crunching chips... SpekTek. I used to laugh when I saw PNY memory in BestBuy with a SpecTek mark on its chips selling for 2x what good RAM at newegg would cost.

    Basically anything that's dropped, damaged, or doesn't meet spec somehow, gets put into SpecTek and re-binned according to what it's now capable of. It's a brand that allows Micron to make money off of otherwise garbage parts, without diluting their own brand. On the good end the part may have just had some bent leads that needed to be fixed, on the bad end the memory can be sold and run at much slower specs or smaller capacity (blowing fuses in the chip to disable bad parts), or simply scrapped altogether.
    Reply

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