When Intel entered the SSD market one of its declared goals was to bring the technology into the mainstream. The goal was so important to Intel that its consumer drive was branded X25-M, with the M standing for mainstream. Intel's desire for SSD ubiquity wasn't entirely altruistic however. Mechanical storage acted as a potential gate to increasing CPU performance. Eventually, without significant improvements in IO performance, CPU improvements would be less visible to most users. SSDs would help alleviate this bottleneck.

It wouldn't be untrue to say that Intel accomplished its mission. The client SSD market was in a state of disarray before Intel arrived on the scene. Although we still have problems today, there are a number of affordable options for end users and lots of competition. Samsung, Marvell, Indilinx, JMicron and even SanDisk are now vying for control of the market.

With healthy competition, significant performance improvements and (hopefully) improved reliability in the consumer SSD space, Intel will actually begin defocusing itself from this market over the coming years. Intel needs to keep margins as high as possible to appease shareholders, and the consumer SSD business is in a race to the bottom. Dollars per GB are all that matter here once you deliver a certain level of performance and reliability.

Intel won't abandon the consumer SSD market completely, it will still compete in the high end space but there's a good reason that the mainstream moniker has been dropped from Intel's product names. Intel will shift more of its attention to the enterprise space, bringing that technology to the high end desktop/workstation users where it can (e.g. Cherryville will be focused on both enterprise and enthusiast desktop users). But as you have already seen, I wouldn't expect Intel to actively compete in driving mainstream SSD pricing down further. That market now belongs to the players I mentioned above.

What better way to kick off the shift in focus than with a new enterprise drive: Intel's SSD 710, the long awaited successor to the X25-E. Unlike previous Intel SSDs however the 710 isn't aimed at significantly improving performance. Instead the 710 attempts to offer larger capacities than the X25-E, at similar endurance and performance levels. That's right, the 710 shouldn't outperform the X25-E, it'll just be cheaper.

At first glance that's not a very impressive claim. The X25-E came out in 2008 (available in early 2009) and hasn't been updated since. Delivering performance similar to that of a three-year-old SSD doesn't sound all that exciting. If huge performance gains are what you're after, the SSD 710 isn't for you.

The 710 is built off the same architecture as the Intel SSD 320. It uses the same controller but with a newer firmware revision. The firmware is obviously also tuned for enterprise workloads.

Enterprise SSD Comparison
  Intel SSD 710 Intel X25-E Intel SSD 320
Capacities 100 / 200 / 300GB 32 / 64GB 80 / 120 / 160 / 300 / 600GB
NAND 25nm HET MLC 50nm SLC 25nm MLC
Max Sequential Performance (Reads/Writes) 270 / 210 MBps 250 / 170 MBps 270 / 220 MBps
Max Random Performance (Reads/Writes) 38.5K / 2.7K IOPS 35K / 3.3K IOPS 39.5K / 600 IOPS
Endurance (Max Data Written) 500TB - 1.5PB 1 - 2PB 5 - 60TB
Encryption AES-128 - AES-128
Power Safe Write Cache Y N Y
Temp Sensor Y N N

Since it uses the same controller as the 320, you get the same benefits. There's still no 6Gbps support, but you do get full disk encryption (enabled via ATA password). Intel also outfits the 710 with capacitors to ensure any data stored in the controller's caches can be committed to NAND in the event of a power failure. The 710 also includes surplus NAND arrays (and data redundancy). In the event of a full NAND die failure, you shouldn't see any data loss.

What Intel promises with the 710 is reliability and a clear upgrade path from the X25-E. The idea here is most enterprise workloads exist on mechanical drives today. Moving to a small array of SSDs quickly alleviates any IO bottlenecks, then the only issues that remain are cost, capacity and reliability. It's the three of these areas that the SSD 710 looks to address.

Don't get too excited about the cost angle though. While the Intel SSD 710 drives cost-per-GB down much lower than the old X25-E, it is still an enterprise drive so expect to pay more than what you'd find as a consumer.

The pricing breakdown is below:

Intel SSD 710 Pricing Comparison
  X25-E 64GB 100GB 200GB 300GB
Price $790 $650 $1250 $1900
Price per GB $12.34 $6.50 $6.25 $6.33

At $6.50/GB the 710 is significantly cheaper than the outgoing X25-E which is still priced at over $11/GB today. When it first launched the X25-E commanded over $15/GB. Regardless of performance, these prices alone are enough to drive away consumers. If you haven't gotten the hint by now, the 710 is strictly for enterprise customers.

Capacities are also significantly higher. While the X25-E topped out at 64GB, the 710 will take you all the way up to 300GB.

Reliability wasn't an issue with the X25-E, thus it mustn't be an issue with the 710 either. There's just one problem: the X25-E could depend on 50nm SLC NAND, boasting an endurance rating of 100,000 program/erase cycles per cell, the 710 however needs to somehow equal that with 25nm MLC NAND. As a reference, consumer-grade MLC NAND is good for 3000 - 5000 p/e cycles.

Why use MLC NAND? The shift to MLC is what gives the 710 its cost and capacity advantages over the X25-E. How does Intel have its cake and eat it too? By using something it calls MLC-HET NAND.

NAND Recap


View All Comments

  • cdillon - Friday, September 30, 2011 - link

    I must be missing some important detail behind their decision to use MLC. MLC holds exactly twice as much information per cell as SLC, which means you can get twice the storage with the same number of chips. However, they are reserving up to 60% of the MLC NAND as spare area while still achieving a LOWER write-life than the SLC-based X25-E which only needs 20% spare. Why not continue to use lower-density SLC with a smaller spare area? The total capacity would only be slightly lower while achieving at least another 500GB of write life, if not more, and would probably also bring the 4KB Random Write numbers back up to X25-E levels. Reply
  • cdillon - Friday, September 30, 2011 - link

    Oops, I meant to say "at least another 500TB of write life" instead of 500GB. Reply
  • Stahn Aileron - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    More than likely it has to do with production yields. Anand mentions SLC and MLC are physically identical, it's just how you address them. SLC seems to be very high quality NAND while MLC is the low end. MLC-HET (or eMLC) seems to be the middle of the pack in terms of overall quality.

    Unless you can get SLC yields that consistently outpace MLC-HET yields by a factor of 2, it's not very economical in the long run for the same capacity.

    Also, chip manufacturing is a pretty fixed cost at the wafer level from my understanding (at least once you hit mass production on a mature process). For SLC vs MLC, you can either use double the SLC chips to match MLC capacities (higher cost) or use the same number of chips and sacrifice capacity. Intel seems to be trying to get the best of both worlds (higher capacity at the same or lower costs). (All that while maximizing their production capacity and ability to meet demand as needed as a side benefit.)

    Obviously I could be wrong. That's all conjecture based on what little I know of the industry as a consumer.
  • ckryan - Friday, September 30, 2011 - link

    Anand, thanks for the awesome Intel SMART data tip.

    I've joined in the XtremeSystems SSD endurance test. By writing a simulated desktop workload to the drive over and over, for months on end, eventually a drive will become read only. So far, only one drive has become RO, and that was a Samsung 470 with an apparent write amplification of 5+(this was the only SSD I've ever heard of that this has happened to outside of a lab). Another drive (a 64GB Crucial M4) has gone through almost 10,000 PE cycles, and still doesn't have any reallocated sectors -- but all of the drives have performed well, and many have hundreds of TBs on them. I chose a SF 2281 with Toshiba toggle NAND, but I'm having some issues with it (like it won't stop dropping out/or BSOD if it's the system drive). Though it takes months and months of 24/7 writing, I think the process is both interesting and likely to put many users at ease concerning drive longevity. I don't think consumers should be worrying about the endurance of 25nm NAND, but I do start wondering what will happen with the advent of next generation flash. If you want to worry about NAND, worry about sync vs async or toggle, but don't sweat the conservative PE ratings -- it seems like the controller itself plays a super important role in the preservation of NAND in addition to the NAND itself and spare area. Obviously, increasing spare area is always a good idea if you have a particularly brutal workload, but it's not a terrible idea in many other settings... it's not just for RAID0 you know.

    The only real SSD endurance test takes place in a user's machine (or server), and I have no doubts that any modern SSD will last anything less than the better part of a decade -- at least as far as the flash is concerned (and probably much, much longer). You'll get mad at your SF's BSoDs and throw it out the window before you ever make a dent in the flash's lifespan. The only exception is if your drive isn't aligned (and especially without trim). Under these conditions don't expect your drive to last very long as WA jumps by double digit factors.

  • Movieman420 - Friday, September 30, 2011 - link

    Yup. And you can expect the current SF bsod problem to vanish when intel fixes it's drivers and oroms. What coincidence eh?

  • JarredWalton - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Ha! An educated guess in this case feels more like a pipe dream. If Intel is willing to jump on the SF controller bandwagon, I will be amazed. Then again, they've got the 510 using a non-Intel controller, so anything is possible. Reply
  • ckryan - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    It kinda makes sense though. Intel using a Sandforce controller (or possibly "Sandforce-eque") but with their firmware and NAND would be tough to stop. The SF controller (when it works -- In my case not always that often) yields benefits to consumer and enterprise workloads alike. Further, it could help bridge Intel into smaller process NAND with about the same overall TBW due to compression (My 60GB has about 85TB host to ~65TB nand writes). That's not a small amount over the lifespan of a drive. Along with additional overprovisioning, Intel could conceivably make a drive with sub-25nm NAND last as long as the 34nm stuff with those two advantages.

    There's nothing really stopping SF now except for the not-so little stability issues. I thought it was much rarer that it actually is (it's rare when it happens to someone else and an epidemic when it happens to you). With that heinous hose-beast no longer lurking in the closet, SandForce could end up being the only contender. Until such time as they get the problems resolved, whether or not you have problems is just a crapshoot... no seeming rhyme or reason, almost -- but not quite -- completely random. If Intel could bring that missing link to SF it would be a boon to consumers, but Intel could just as well buy SandForce to get rid of them. Either is just as likely, and conspiracy theorists would say that Intel is purposely causing issues with SF drives so they don't have to buy them (or don't have to pay as much). In the end, most consumers would just be happy if the 2281 powered drives they already have worked like the drive it was always mean to be.
  • Movieman420 - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Guess you didn't follow the story over to VR Zone either. It's a done deal. Cherryville is SandForce 2200. It should be announced before long imo. Reply
  • rishidev - Friday, September 30, 2011 - link

    Why even bother to make a 200gb drive at this point of time.
    AMD fanboys get abused for masturbating .
    So What ?? im supposed to buy a $1300 Intel ""WOOOW" ssd drive.
  • TheSSDReview - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Because Intel wants to hit the enthusiast market. The new drives wont be anywhere near the price of these 710 series drives and will demand product confidence as Intel has always had such. It is a win-win for SF since many have taken comfort in speculation of controller troubles rather than examining other such causes.

    The question then becomes one of SF purchase we think.

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