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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  • Marlin1975 - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    How about throwing in a AMD SB850 to see how they handle SSD's.
    AMD has had native SATA6gb longer than intel so like to see how that matchs up. Most only look at CPU and ignore the chipset.
  • DarkKnight_Y2K - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

  • tech6 - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    So nothing has really changed. There still isn't one "perfect" SSD that does everything well and is proven to be reliable. I guess the disappointment stems from many that were hoping that the new Intel SSDs would tick all those boxes - speed, reliability and price. As usual YMMV - Samsung and Intel is the conservative choice and SF based drives are for those who want maximum performance in random I/O situations.
  • tno - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    This, as always in the tech world, is a numbers and marketing game. Somewhere there is a user who is encoding video and really needs the bleeding edge for that. There is an artist working on large incompressible canvasses in Photoshop. These guys need this drive. They have a small Sandforce doing OS duties but they need a fast non -Sandforce drive for data. All those numbers mean squat without perspective and that's what's the text of Anandtech articles bring.

    So maybe for the consumer that is tech savvy enough to know they want an SSD but not enough to have read all that has been published with regards SSD drives they need a simple primer. Maybe a web app. Do you use you computer with VMs? Do you use it with games? Is your computer a netbook? I'm certain there is a way to ask a few questions and come up with a sensible suggestion for what drive is right for which user.
    That would only work with a more comprehensive field of tested drives. Other posters are right, there is little to no way of knowing which is the best 40GB drive. So I volunteer myself to help. Anand, I am a soon to be new father that would love to work from home if for no other reason than daycare costs nearly as much as what I get paid as a paramedic. Send me a system, every SSD on the market and a small stipend and I will test anything and everything solid state.
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    ...with poor product differentiation. With Intel's adoption of the same controller others are using, SSDs become that much less interesting. I realize firmware and QC differences still exist, but without hard numbers (aside from the French site's), and given that major snafus can hit any maker at any time, it seems like the only real consideration is ye ole customer service. I've dealt with OCZ's 'support' department twice and that was enough for me. Intel and Crucial have always treated me right, so considering real world performance differences more or less don't exist anymore, they'll be getting my SSD $s.
  • LeeKay - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    have had 100% Faliure and i have had 5 drives all failed.
  • iwod - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    I have been asking the question for a long time. Why an Toshiba SSD manage to beat Sandforce in some real world usage. And finally we got an answer.

    Given all SSD latency are roughly equal or the same.

    Seq Read Write is EXTREMELY Important in Everyday usage. IT IS THE SINGLE MOST Important factor that gives you most improvement in SSD Real World usage benchmarks.

    Random Write reaches the top with 50 MB/s. And while we would want further reduction in Write latency, but with the increase of Ram / Cache onbroad with SSD. This should not be an issue.

    Random Read results shows we have still some head room to grow.

    With further tweaking Intel may be able to squeeze out even more performance our of it.
  • tno - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    I think I missed something, while Seq Read Write is obviously the big number that makes the marketing materials, in terms of user experience (ooh, buzzword) the Random Reads are where lies the money, and as Anand said in the article, no modern OS stresses this enough to make the lower numbers a significant limitation.

    High sequential reading and writing is only going to be felt by those that are moving large files around within an already fast environment where a mechanical disk drive would be a bottle neck (encoding files locally for instance). And while for those users Seq Read Write might be considered "THE SINGLE MOST important factor" it wouldn't be for, say, the person that wants to add some oopmh to a dual-core laptop of otherwise mediocre specifications.

    Certainly, aside from playing around with transferring files, my drives have probably never approached their max seq speed. As OS drives, they mainly spend their time hunting out small files for the OS to use.
  • Beenthere - Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - link

    These SSDs aren't ready for prime time just yet IMO. Maybe in another 2-3 years?
  • tno - Thursday, March 3, 2011 - link

    What's the hold up? Reliability? Speed?

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