I have to admit that Intel's Z68 launch was somewhat anti-climactic for me. It was the chipset we all wanted when Sandy Bridge first arrived, but now four months after Sandy Bridge showed up there isn't all that much to be excited about - save for one feature of course: Smart Response Technology (aka SSD caching). The premise is borrowed from how SSDs are sometimes used in the enterprise space: put a small, fast SSD in front of a large array of storage and use it to cache both reads and writes. This is ultimately how the memory hierarchy works - hide the latency of larger, cheaper storage by caching frequently used data in much faster, but more expensive storage.

I believe there's a real future with SSD caching, however the technology needs to go mainstream. It needs to be available on all chipsets, something we won't see until next year with Ivy Bridge. Even then, there's another hurdle: the price of the SSD cache.

Alongsize Z68 Intel introduced the SSD 311, codename Larson Creek. The 20GB SSD uses 34nm SLC NAND, thus pricing the drive more like a 40GB MLC SSD at $110. Intel claims that by using SLC NAND it can deliver the write performance necessary to function as a good cache. Our benchmarks showed just that. The 20GB SSD 311 performed a lot like a 160GB Intel X25-M but with half of the NAND channels thanks to SLC NAND's faster write speed and some firmware tweaks. In fact, the only two complaints I had about the 311 were its limited capacity and price.

The capacity issue proved to be a problem as I found that after almost a dozen different application launches it wasn't too hard to evict useful data from the cache. The price is also a problem because for $100 more you can pick up a 120GB Vertex 2 and manage your data manually with much better performance overall.

Yesterday a friend pointed me at a now defunct deal at Newegg. For $85 Newegg would sell you a 40GB SF-1200 based Corsair Force SSD. That particular deal is done with and all that remains is the drive for $110, but it made me wonder - how well would a small SandForce drive do as an SSD cache? There's only one way to find out.

The Test

CPU

Intel Core i7 2600K running at 3.4GHz (Turbo & EIST Disabled) - for AT SB 2011, AS SSD & ATTO

Motherboard:

Intel Z68 Motherboard

Chipset:

Intel Z68

Chipset Drivers:

Intel 9.1.1.1015 + Intel RST 10.5

Memory: Qimonda DDR3-1333 4 x 1GB (7-7-7-20)
Video Card: Intel HD Graphics 3000
Video Drivers: Intel GMA Driver for Windows 8.15.10.2372
Desktop Resolution: 1920 x 1200
OS: Windows 7 x64

 

Random/Sequential Read & Write Performance
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  • Andreos - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    I don't do transcoding and I think the Z68 Virtu hoopla is a one gigantic snooze. None of that is going to save me from having to buy a decent discrete video card.

    SSD caching is the one thing that sparked my interest in Z68. But the Z68 boards that are coming available online have a price premium over the equivalent P67 board of about $50. An SSD 311 runs $110. That puts you at $160 just to get into the SSD caching game. I'd rather take that $160, kick in another $50, and get a P67 board and a real 120GB SSD. In fact, that's just what I'm going to do!

    BTW the Z68 boards have fewer USB ports than the equivalent P67 boards (all those video ports for the integrate video take up real estate).

    I think Z68, rather than being frosting on the Sandy Bridge cake, is more like melted ice cream.
    Reply
  • Addikt - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    After reading these two articles, I don't fully understand what the point of this technology is. I understand that it fills a current void, but how useful is it going to be down the road?

    With the costs of SSDs continually dropping, and mainstream drive performance increasing, it looks like it will only be 6 months to a year before this technology is obsolete.

    It was already highlighted in the previous article that if you have a Vertex 3, you really have no need for this feature. So, in the interim it's bringing SSD-ish performance to mechanical drives, but to what end? Why not just save up your pennies and buy that Vertex 3 that you've always wanted? I mean, this Intel 311 20 GB is going to cost you $100+ anyway.

    I just don't see the end-game with respect to this tech. That said, upon reading the comments section, it seems that everyone is so delighted by its arrival, which causes me to question my own understanding of it.

    Am I missing something here? Anyone care to enlighten me? I just don't see this as being a really big deal.
    Reply
  • slyck - Saturday, May 14, 2011 - link

    I feel the same. From the first announcements this looked pretty weak to me. You do get some performance gains but at what cost? Not interested. At all. Waiting til the end of the year to finally make a first SSD purchase(if the prices FINALLY become reasonable. Planned to make first purchase same time last year and the year before.)

    Pay less for a non-Z68 chipset, save the cost of this overpriced 20GB SSD, and just get a decent sized SSD instead.
    Reply
  • xineis - Sunday, May 15, 2011 - link

    Intel SSD Caching seems to be a very nice idea! Would SSDs like the Vertex2 or lower end SSDs perform better? Or would they do just the same?

    Also, could someone explain what is that Random Data that always appears on the graphics?
    Reply
  • biofishfreak - Tuesday, May 17, 2011 - link

    I've been loving all the numbers about SSDs, but I'm still apprehensive about the whole failure thing- not that I'm worried about the drive itself since I already have a solid backup plan in place- but about the RMA times, shipping costs, and how many times I can get the drive replaced on a single purchase warranty (as in the warranty states 3 years, but does that go out the window after the first replacement?) I'm ok spending ~$200 on a low-to-mid SSD every two years, but I can't afford to do every 6 months.

    A review and comparison chart of all the manufacturers RMA times, warranty specifics, etc would be great!! SSDs fail, it's a part of life. But do the support centers fail too?
    Reply
  • jcollett - Thursday, May 19, 2011 - link

    Maybe I missed it, but did this article address that the Intel 311 uses SLC chips while all the other consumer SSDs use MLC? This will be VERY IMPORTANT when using the drive for caching. I would be surprised if the MLC drives last a year at this task. Intel engineers were no fools; they put SLC chips into this drive for a good reason. Reply
  • feathers632 - Friday, May 20, 2011 - link

    Based on the video I watched on youtube which as I recall was a gigabyte z68 with SSD caching booting windows next to a regular non SSD system. The Z68 system was maybe 10 seconds faster. A total waste of time. Reply
  • JimmiG - Saturday, May 21, 2011 - link

    It's a shame hybrid drives haven't taken off. That's sort of the consumer version of this. Consumers don't want to buy multiple devices or configure anything. It should just work. Compare to how 3D graphics really took off when they began integrating the 2D and 3D cores on the same chip.

    The problem with just adding a small SSD (64-128GB) to your existing setup, is that you have to manually move the files you *think* you will be accessing most frequently to the SSD. When your usage pattern changes, you have to manually move the application/game you're no longer using as much to your mechanical drive, then move the one you've started using more frequently to the SSD. This usually involves a complete reinstall of the program or game. The same will happen when you run out of space on the SSD.

    If the OS or storage controller took care of automatically caching the most frequently used data, it would be much more efficient. It might not even need to cache all application or game data, maybe just some portions of. Windows already does this with Superfetch and Readyboost for smaller amounts of data (a couple of gigabytes). It shouldn't be that hard to extend it to 64+GB.
    Reply
  • Stahn Aileron - Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - link

    You do realize that Intel's SRT on Z68 is the next step to making Hybrid drives a viable market, right?

    The scenario you describe is precisely the one SRT is trying to avoid/mitigate/solve: manual data allocation by the user. It's at the chipset and driver level. The difference here is the need for two drives and initial set-up vs. a single drive and (hopefully) simple plug 'n play.

    While it'd be nice to have a (good) hybrid drive, I don't foresee 20GB of SLC NAND, one (for laptops) or two (for desktop) HDD platters, and the various controllers for each in a single package any time soon. (If we take Intel's SRT system as an example, you'd need the equivalent of a controller for each the SSD and HDD components, plus a chipset-like controller to tie the two parts together. We'll assume the external SATA connection to the MB is supplied through the chipset-equivalent controller. Not to say this can't all be consolidated into a single-chip solution later on, though.)

    I don't see this happening unless a company like Intel, Corsair, Kingston, or OCZ partners up with a HDD manufacturer like WD or Seagate.

    I'd love to see somethng like a co-branded Intel/WD Hybrid drive or something equivalent. (Would "hybrid drive" be abbreviated as HYD?) I think it'd do wonders for the single-drive ultraportable laptop market.
    Reply
  • Hrel - Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - link

    If Intel got a 40GB one of these out for sale at 79 bucks I'd buy it.

    I'd really like to see you add some striped RAID with and without a cache results to these charts though. Otherwise very good article. I really like seeing the results for application/game launch and level load times; as those are "real world" where as 4KB random writes aren't as much and 4KB is pretty irrelevant anyway. As long as the drive can handle writing 4KB/second or more I think I'm good, haha.
    Reply

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