Intel's X25-M 34nm vs 50nm: Not as Straight Forward As You'd Think

It took me a while to understand exactly what Intel did with its latest drive, mostly because there are no docs publicly available on either the flash used in the drives or on the controller itself. Intel is always purposefully vague about important details, leaving everything up to clever phrasing of questions and guesswork with tests and numbers before you truly uncover what's going on. But after weeks with the drive, I think I've got it.

  X25-M Gen 1 X25-M Gen 2
Flash Manufacturing Process 50nm 34nm
Flash Read Latency 85 µs 65 µs
Flash Write Latency 115 µs 85 µs
Random 4KB Reads Up to 35K IOPS Up to 35K IOPS
Random 4KB Writes Up to 3.3K IOPS Up to 6.6K IOPS (80GB)
Up to 8.6K IOPS (160GB)
Sequential Read Up to 250MB/s Up to 250MB/s
Sequential Write Up to 70MB/s Up to 70MB/s
Halogen-free No Yes
Introductory Price $345 (80GB)
$600 - $700 (160GB)
$225 (80GB)
$440 (160GB)

 


The old X25-M G1


The new X25-M G2

Moving to 34nm flash let Intel drive the price of the X25-M to ultra competitive levels. It also gave Intel the opportunity to tune controller performance a bit. The architecture of the controller hasn't changed, but it is technically a different piece of silicon (that happens to be Halogen-free). What has changed is the firmware itself.


The old controller


The new controller

The new X25-M G2 has twice as much DRAM on-board as the previous drive. The old 160GB drive used a 16MB Samsung 166MHz SDRAM (CAS3):


Goodbye Samsung

The new 160GB G2 drive uses a 32MB Micron 133MHz SDRAM (CAS3):


Hello Micron

More memory means that the drive can track more data and do a better job of keeping itself defragmented and well organized. We see this reflected in the "used" 4KB random write performance, which is around 50% higher than the previous drive.

Intel is now using 16GB flash packages instead of 8GB packages from the original drive. Once 34nm production really ramps up, Intel could outfit the back of the PCB with 10 more chips and deliver a 320GB drive. I wouldn't expect that anytime soon though.


The old X25-M G1


The new X25-M G2

Low level performance of the new drive ranges from no improvement to significant depending on the test:

Note that these results are a bit different than my initial preview. I'm using the latest build of Iometer this time around, instead of the latest version from iometer.org. It does a better job filling the drives and produces more reliable test data in general.

The trend however is clear: the new G2 drive isn't that much faster. In fact, the G2 is slower than the G1 in my 4KB random write test when the drive is brand new. The benefit however is that the G2 doesn't drop in performance when used...at all. Yep, you read that right. In the most strenuous case for any SSD, the new G2 doesn't even break a sweat. That's...just...awesome.

The rest of the numbers are pretty much even, with the exception of 4KB random reads where the G2 is roughly 11% faster.

I continue to turn to PCMark Vantage as the closest indication to real world performance I can get for these SSDs, and it echoes my earlier sentiments:

When brand new, the G1 and the G2 are very close in performance. There are some tests where the G2 is faster, others where the G1 is faster. The HDD suite shows the true potential of the G2 and even there we're only looking at a 5.6% performance gain.

It's in the used state that we see the G2 pull ahead a bit more, but still not drastic. The advantage in the HDD suite is around 7.5%, but the rest of the tests are very close. Obviously the major draw to the 34nm drives is their price, but that can't be all there is to it...can it?

The new drives come with TRIM support, albeit not out of the box. Sometime in Q4 of this year, Intel will offer a downloadable firmware that enables TRIM on only the 34nm drives. TRIM on these drives will perform much like TRIM does on the OCZ drives using Indilinx' manual TRIM tool - in other words, restoring performance to almost new.

Because it can more or less rely on being able to TRIM invalid data, the G2 firmware is noticeably different from what's used in the G1. In fact, if we slightly modify the way I tested in the Anthology I can actually get the G1 to outperform the G2 even in PCMark Vantage. In the Anthology, to test the used state of a drive I would first fill the drive then restore my test image onto it. The restore process helped to fragment the drive and make sure the spare-area got some use as well. If we take the same approach but instead of imaging the drive we perform a clean Windows install on it, we end up with a much more fragmented state; it's not a situation you should ever encounter since a fresh install of Windows should be performed on a clean, secure erased drive, but it does give me an excellent way to show exactly what I'm talking about with the G2:

  PCMark Vantage (New) PCMark Vantage HDD (New) PCMark Vantage (Fragmented + Used) PCMark Vantage HDD (Fragmented + Used)
Intel X25-M G1 15496 32365 14921 26271
Intel X25-M G2 15925 33166 14622 24567
G2 Advantage 2.8% 2.5% -2.0% -6.5%

 

Something definitely changed with the way the G2 handles fragmentation, it doesn't deal with it as elegantly as the G1 did. I don't believe this is a step backwards though, Intel is clearly counting on TRIM to keep the drive from ever getting to the point that the G1 could get to. The tradeoff is most definitely performance and probably responsible for the G2's ability to maintain very high random write speeds even while used. I should mention that even without TRIM it's unlikely that the G2 will get to this performance state where it's actually slower than the G1; the test just helps to highlight that there are significant differences between the drives.

Overall the G2 is the better drive but it's support for TRIM that will ultimately ensure that. The G1 will degrade in performance over time, the G2 will only lose performance as you fill it with real data. I wonder what else Intel has decided to add to the new firmware...

I hate to say it but this is another example of Intel only delivering what it needs to in order to succeed. There's nothing that keeps the G1 from also having TRIM other than Intel being unwilling to invest the development time to make it happen. I'd be willing to assume that Intel already has TRIM working on the G1 internally and it simply chose not to validate the firmware for public release (an admittedly long process). But from Intel's perspective, why bother?

Even the G1, in its used state, is faster than the fastest Indilinx drive. In 4KB random writes the G1 is even faster than an SLC Indilinx drive. Intel doesn't need to touch the G1, the only thing faster than it is the G2. Still, I do wish that Intel would be generous to its loyal customers that shelled out $600 for the first X25-M. It just seems like the right thing to do. Sigh.

Used vs. New Performance: Revisited All Indilinx Drives Are Built Alike
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  • GourdFreeMan - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    Yes, rewriting a cell will refill the floating gate with trapped electrons to the proper voltage level unless the gate has begun to wear out, so backing up your data, secure erasing your drive and copying the data back will preserve the life (within reason) of even drives that use minimalistic wear leveling to safeguard data. Charge retention is only a problem for users if they intend to use the drive for archival storage, or operate the drive at highly elevated temperatures.

    It is a bigger problem for flash engineers, however, and one of the reasons why MLC cannot be moved easily to more bits per cell without design changes. To store n-bits in a single cell you need 2^n separate energy levels to represent them, and thus each bit is only has approximately 1/(2^(n-1)) the amount of energy difference between states when compared to SLC using similar designs and materials.
    Reply
  • Zheos - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    Man you seem to know a lot about what you're talking about :)

    Yeah now i understand why SSD for database and file storage server would be quite a bad idea.

    But for personal windows & everyday application storage, seems like a pure win to me if you can afford one :)

    I was only worried about its life-span but thankx to you and you're quick replys (and for the maths and technical stuff about how it realy work ;) im sold on the fact that i will buy one soon.

    The G2 from Intel seems like the best choice for now but I'll just wait and see how it's going when TRIM will become almost enable on every SSD and i'll make my decision there in a couple of months =)


    Reply
  • GourdFreeMan - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    It isn't so much that SSDs make a bad storage server, but rather that you can't neglect to make periodic backups, as with any type of storage, if your data has great monetary or sentimental value. In addition to backups, RAID (1-6) is also an option if cost is no object and you want to use SSDs for long term storage in a running server. Database servers are a little more complicated, but SSDs can be an intelligent choice there as well if your usage patterns aren't continuous heavy small (i.e. <= 4K) writes.

    I plan on getting a G2 myself for my laptop after Intel updates the firmware to support TRIM and Anand reviews the effects in Windows 7, and I have already been using an Indilinx-based SLC drive in my home server.

    If you do anything that stresses your hard drive(s), or just like snappy boot times and application load times you will probably be impressed by the speeds of a new SSD. The cost per GB and lack of long term reliability studies are really the only things holding them back from taking the storage market by storm now.
    Reply
  • ninevoltz - Thursday, September 17, 2009 - link

    GourdFreeMan could you please continue your explanation? I would like to learn more. You have really dived deeply into the physical properties of these drives. Reply
  • GourdFreeMan - Tuesday, September 1, 2009 - link

    Minor correction to the second paragraph in my post above -- "each bit is only has" should read "each representation only has" in the last sentence. Reply
  • philosofool - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    Nice job. This has been a great series.

    I'm getting a SSD once I can get one at $1/GB. I want a system/program files drive of at least 80GB and then a conventional HDD (a tenth of the cost/GB) for user data.

    Would keeping user data on a conventional HDD affect these results? It would seem like it wouldn't, but I would like to see the evidence.

    I would really like to see more benchmarks for these drives that aren't synthetic. Have you tried things like Crysis or The Witcher load times? (Both seemed to me to have pretty slow loads for maps.) I don't know if these would be affected, but as real world applications, I think it makes sense to try them out.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    Personally I keep docs on my SSD but I keep pictures/music on a hard drive. Neither gets touched all that often in the grand scheme of things, but one is a lot smaller :)

    In The SSD Anthology I looked at Crysis load times. Performance didn't really improve when going to an SSD.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Eeqmcsq - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    I would have thought that the read speed of an SSD would have helped cut down some of the compile time. Is there any tool that lets you analyze disk usage vs cpu usage during the compile time, to see what percentage of the compile was spent reading/writing to disk vs CPU processing?

    Is there any way you can add a temperature test between an HDD and an SSD? I read a couple of Newegg reviews that say their SSDs got HOT after use, though I think that may have just been 1 particular brand that I don't remember. Also, there was at least one article online that tested an SSD vs an HDD and the SSD ran a little warmer than the HDD.

    Also, garbage collection does have one advantage: It's OS independent. I'm still using Ubuntu 8.04 at work, and I'm stuck on 8.04 because my development environment WORKS, and I won't risk upgrading and destabilizing it. A garbage collecting SSD would certainly be helpful for my system... though your compiling tests are now swaying me against an SSD upgrade. Doh!

    And just for fun, have you thought about running some of your benchmarks on a RAM drive? I'd like to see how far SSDs and SATA have to go before matching the speed of RAM.

    Finally, any word from JMicron and their supposed update to the much "loved" JMF602 controller? I'd like to see some non-stuttering cheapo SSDs enter the market and really bring the $$$/GB down, like the Kingston V-series. Also, I'd like to see a refresh in the PATA SSD market.

    "Am I relieved to be done with this article? You betcha." And I give you a great THANK YOU!!! for spending the time working on it. As usual, it was a great read.
    Reply
  • Per Hansson - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    Photofast have released Indilinx based PATA drives;
    http://www.photofastuk.com/engine/shop/category/G-...">http://www.photofastuk.com/engine/shop/category/G-...
    Reply
  • aggressor - Monday, August 31, 2009 - link

    What ever happened to the price drops that OCZ announced when the Intel G2 drives came out? I want 128GB for $280! Reply

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