Intel’s SSD 510 Powered by Marvell

At IDF 2008 Intel presented a session that discussed its SSDs and what made them better than the competition. Allow me to quote, ahem, myself:

“Intel's SSD design attempts to be different in the three key areas that determine SSD performance: Flash, Firmware and Controller.”


“The Firmware and Flash-to-SATA controller are both made by Intel, whereas most SSD makers use off the shelf components and FPGAs for their designs. Intel claims that its expertise in microprocessor and platform design allows for much higher levels of performance out of its SSDs.”

Now allow me to contrast what Intel told me at IDF 2008 with the reality of today in 2011.

The “G3” we’ve all been waiting for will still come. That’ll be Intel’s first 25nm SSD and it should carry specs similar to what we already published. However the focus of the drive will be the mainstream. To take care of the high end Intel created a new drive: the Intel SSD 510 (codename Elmcrest) and it uses a Marvell 9174 6Gbps controller.

Intel's SSD 510 based on Marvell's 88SS9174 controller

Everyone has access to the same NAND that Intel does, but in the past it was controller microarchitecture and firmware that gave Intel the edge. With the 510, the advantage has been reduced to just firmware.

The Marvell 9174 is the same controller Micron uses in its C400 and the same controller in Corsair’s Performance Series 3 SSDs. In fact, I recently received a Corsair P3. Pop off the lid and you’ll see the very same controller Intel is using in the 510:

Corsair's P3 SSD, note the controller similarity

Talk to SandForce and they’ll tell you that the controller itself doesn’t matter - it’s the firmware that matters the most. That’s definitely true to an extent, although I can’t help but feel like you need both microarchitecture and firmware to get the absolute best performance.

Although the controller is sourced from Marvell the firmware and validation are entirely Intel’s. As a result you shouldn't expect the 510 to perform identically to other Marvell based drives.

Intel is also quick to point out that despite using a 3rd party controller, the 510 has to go through Intel’s rigorous validation and testing. Reliability and quality should be no different than any other Intel SSD.

I asked Intel if this was a permanent thing - if we should always expect it to license controllers from third parties for its high performance SSDs. Intel responded by saying that the Marvell controller made sense given the hole in its roadmap, however this is not a long term strategy. While we may see more Intel SSDs based on 3rd party controllers, Marvell’s controller is not a permanent resident in Intel’s SSD roadmap - it’s just here on a student visa.

Paired with the Marvell controller is a 128MB Hynix DDR3-1333 SDRAM. This is technically the largest DRAM to appear on an Intel SSD to date. Even the old X25-M G2 only had a 32MB DRAM on board.

The 510 currently only supports 34nm Intel NAND rated at 5,000 p/e cycles. There are two capacities offered: a 120GB and a 250GB. Intel sent us the 250GB version which has 256GB of 34nm Intel NAND spread out across 16 NAND packages. That’s 16GB per package and 4GB per 34nm die.

Remember the GiB/GB conversion math that’s used to mask spare area in SSDs. With 256GiB of NAND on board and 250GB of storage area promised by the drive, there’s actually only 232.8GiB of user addressable space on the 250GB drive. This puts the percentage of spare area at 9%, an increase over the 6.8% spare area common on the X25-M.

The 120GB drive has even more spare area than the 250GB drive. With 128GB of 34nm NAND on board, the 120GB Intel SSD 510 has 111GiB of user addressable space for a total spare area of 12.7%.

Intel’s rated performance for the SSD 510 is as follows:

Intel SSD Comparison
  X25-M G2 160GB SSD 510 120GB SSD 510 250GB
NAND Capacity 160GB 128GB 256GB
User Capacity 149GB 111GB 232GB
Random Read Performance Up to 35K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS Up to 20K IOPS
Random Write Performance Up to 8.6K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS Up to 8K IOPS
Sequential Read Performance Up to 250MB/s Up to 400MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 500MB/s (6Gbps)
Sequential Write Performance Up to 100MB/s Up to 210MB/s (6Gbps) Up to 315MB/s (6Gbps)
Price $404 $284 $584

Ironically enough the SSD 510 fixes the X25-M’s poor sequential performance but trades it for lower random performance. On paper the 510’s random performance is decidedly last-generation. And honestly the rated performance of the 120GB isn’t particularly interesting. The 120GB drive will have fewer NAND die available, and SSDs achieve their high performance by striping data requests across as many NAND die as possible - hence the lower performance specs.

Pricing is set at $284 for the 120GB drive and $584 for the 250GB drive. Intel’s SSD 510 is available today and Newegg marks the two up to $315 and $615 respectively.

The Bundle

Intel sent over the desktop installation kit bundle for the 510. Included in the box is a 3.5" adapter kit, a 6Gbps SATA cable (3Gbps cables of sufficient quality should work fine though) and a 4-pin molex to SATA power adapter:

The 510 also works with Intel's SSD Toolbox, which makes tasks like secure erase super simple:

Introduction A Word on Reliability & The Test
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  • TSnor - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Article says "Write speed with fully incompressible data is easily a victory for the SF-2200 based OCZ Vertex 3. "

    I think you meant "Write speed with compressible data is easily a victory for the SF-2200 based OCZ Vertex 3. "

    Excellent article, I was interested in the 3rd gen intel SSD, but not at these specs. Wish you gave the read latency time (it can be inferred to some degree from the elapsed time charts which are good). Also, given the size of internal cache these devices use perhaps running for more than 3 mins would be a good idea. The average performance is still changing at 3 mins.
  • AstroGuardian - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    "I mentioned earlier that the 510 would go through Intel’s extensive validation testing, just like any other Intel product."

    Yea right! Just like the H67 and P67. Yea, that made me so happy.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    That's 100% a valid point and it does show that even with extensive validation errors can still get through.

    You'll remember that the X25-M was the first to have major firmware issues before any of its present day competitors were even created.

    Only time will tell how well Intel has learned from those experiences and how seriously it's taking the validation of the 510. Initial compatibility testing looks good but we've got a long road ahead of us.

    Take care,
  • Ryomitomo - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    At least Intel's labs identified the problems themselves, disclosed the problem themselves, will recall and exchange to fix the problem.

    These things makes me feel very confident to buy future Intel products.
  • Nihility - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    A good point. Unlike certain NVIDIA mobile chipsets.
  • Chloiber - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    ...I think Anand is right. Many of you are complaining, but as he said on the final page: it is not clear, where the actual limits are for random speeds. Of course, it's always better to have more. The thing is, that your PC at home can't benefit from 60'000 IOPS. It just can't. You can run it through benchmarks which show high numbers, but as soon as you feed the drive and the CPU with real data, the drive is NOT the limiting factor anymore.
    I'm not saying that it's a good thing the Intel 510 has such low random speeds, compared to other, even older drives. But in the end, the question is whether or not you can actually benefit from 200MB/s random reads and random writes with QDs above 4.

    Anand said himself, and I assure you that he is correct - you can trace it yourself if you want - that with standard workload on home desktop PCs, Queue Depth rarely exceeds 1 or 2, especially not with an SSD in your system. Not even during boot!
    And now THINK AGAIN. What are the random 4k read speeds for low QD of EVERY SSD today? It's actually limited by the NAND being used and it's between 20MB/s and 30MB/s for EVERY SSD.
    Again, I'm not saying that high IOPS aren't important. I'm just saying, they aren't as important as you think. Not anymore, not in the very high regions we are today and especially not with very high QDs.

    The 510 seems to have very good performance in real world benchmarks - it seems that most of you rate synthetic benchmarks higher than real world benchmarks. This, I don't quite understand.
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    The fact is, you will not be using a very competitively priced 250GB SSD for net browsing. When I get my SSD, I'll be using it to store my test VMs where I do a lot of software installations and snapshot jumping.

    The 510 is not a mainstream product where the QD rarely goes above 2. Not at that price at least. I've installed an SSD for a few average users but they were all 60GB drives. I could never justify the price of a 250GB SSD to them but a pro user might (i.e. someone who might make use of a high IOPS drive).
  • semo - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    Meant to say "uncompetitively". Too expensive for the average computer user.
  • tno - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    Spot on, and so a mainstream drive this is not. As workstation drive, however, this seems pretty solid.
  • Nentor - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    If it (the 510) was very cheap everything you say makes sense, but since it is not they'd better make it as fast as possible.

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