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

  • Juri_SSD - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Anand, I have read your previous articles and there where all somehow good. But this one misses one important thing and therefore there are many comparisons, that aren´t correct. When I saw the video, I just thought what is wrong with you.

    First of all: How dare you to compare a 50nm Flash-SSD with a 25 nm Flash-SSD and say that there is only a saving of cost because of use the cheaper MLC instead of SLC? That is so wrong! You can just shrink the 50nm SLC to 35nm SLC and you have lowered the price to half, then you go on and shrink it to 25nm and you have a further reduction in price and end up at a 1/4 price of an 50nm SLC-NAND just by shrinking the Cells.

    Secondly: How dare you compare a 50nm FLASH-SSD with a 25nm Flash-SSD and then say that you have now more than 64 GB just because Intel wisely uses MLC? Hello? What about shrinking again? Your video is so wrong… 64 GB 50nm SLC -> shrinking -> 128 GB 34nm SLC -> shrinking -> 256 GB 25 nm SLC!

    What do we have? Intel could make a 256 GB SLC-drive just by shrinking. Instead of pointing this out, you told the people how “good” Intel does his job by sorting out good MLC-NAND to compete against an very very very old, really old SSD. The only winner on this “good” job is Intel itself. The enterprise-consumer waits for a competitor who actually shrinks the SLC-Nand to 25nm.

    Then again: You compare GB/Dollar. That is nice. And then you do a long speech about servers that really need all this p/e-cycles. But, if the servers really need all this p/e-cycles, why do you not compare p/e-cycles/Dollar? Perhaps, because the new 710-SSD really sucks on that comparison, also against an really old SLC-SSD like the Intel X25-E?

    Then again, you can say: “All right, you are right Juri, but there are no 34nm SLC-Flash” Ups, this is also untrue, there are 34nm SLC-Flash-drives, so why you don’t compare GB/Dollar with these drives? You don’t know what I mean? How about Intel SSD 311? If you compare that 20 GB SLC 34nm NAnd-Flash drive, you see that the price of an 710-SSD you could easily make with a simple shrinking of SLC-NAND, just like I told in the first point.

    I am really disappointed by your review.

    PS: If you think my english is bad, you can try reading in german: http://hardware-infos.com/news.php?news=3946
  • lemonadesoda - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    I disagree with the statement that the SSD market is a race to the bottom. I think this is a lazy catchphrase that demonstrates a company's unwillingness to innovate. It is like saying the CPU or GPU or TFT or mobile handset business is a race to the bottom. Clearly, this is not true!

    There is plenty of room for Intel to innovate, differentiate, and gain margin on consumer SSD.

    What SSD "technologies" would be interesting for the consumer? Encryption; Response-to-theft management; Wear leveling; SMART 2; Thunderbolt, etc. that would allow Intel to lead and to charge a premium on the consumer product.

    Intel owns the Light Peak/Thunderbolt technology. Intel should get Thunderbolt onto it's PC chipset and get a range of SSDs onto Thunderbolt. Why are we using (e)SATA as a slow intermediary layering protocol when thunderbolt could do this and do it better? With Intel thunderbolt on the Intel mainboard, and compatible Intel SSD, we would no longer find PCIe based SSD or RAID0 SATA interesting. Intel could claim the enthusiast (not just enterprise) market in one swoop. And enthusiast drives consumer branding and perception.

    There's still a lot of room for Intel in the SSD market. Or perhaps the current team has run out of ideas and motivation?
  • Friendly0Fire - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Actually, no, there's a point you're missing. At the moment the biggest barrier to adoption with SSDs is... price. Specifically cost/GB. CPUs, GPUs and mobile handsets can be had for all price ranges, thus you see a good amount of spread between low and high end. CPUs and GPUs also have the advantage of being bundled in prefab computers, while mobiles get heavy price cuts through mobile plans.

    SSDs, however, are still restricted to a niche market, only seen as an optional component on high-end computers or bought directly as a separate piece. Sadly, most people still consider "performance" to be summarized by how many GHz and GBs your computer has. SSDs can improve performance tremendously, but good luck explaining what IOPS or bandwidth mean. Until prices are closer to that of magnetic drives, most people won't even be interested in learning about them.

    So yeah, for the time being SSDs are a race to the bottom in the customer market. Performance is what I'd call good enough for 99.95% of computer users, even when you consider 3Gbps last-generation drives. What matters now is price drops.
  • EddyKilowatt - Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - link

    I agree that price is the #1 barrier in the minds of potential adopters, but right after that comes reliability, and I think this looms equally large once people get used to the price and understand the performance benefit.

    Many are waiting for all the myriad 'issues' to get sorted out... until they do, it won't truly be a price-driven commodity market. And until they do, Intel can offer added value -- if they're careful about reliability themselves -- that justifies the price premium they'd like to charge.

    Perhaps SSDs aren't as architecture and innovation driven as CPUs, but there's way more to them than just bulk memory mass produced at sweatshop wages.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Saturday, October 1, 2011 - link

    Synthetic hard drive comparisons are not reality. Reply
  • Luke212 - Sunday, October 2, 2011 - link

    Anand, Businesses do not run SSDs as single drives or raid 0. Failures being 1-2% it is too disruptive to business (unless they are read only). Can you consider testing these drives in Raid 1, which is how they are used in real life? Reply
  • Iketh - Monday, October 17, 2011 - link

    That would depend on the raid controller's performance, not the drive. Reply
  • ClagMaster - Sunday, October 2, 2011 - link

    "It wouldn't be untrue to say that Intel accomplished its mission."

    Means after the reader deciphers this ...

    "It would be true to say that Intel accomplished its mission."

    Do not do this. I have skinned engineers alive for making this kind of double-negative grammatical error in their reports I often have to shovel through. I hate teaching engineers English. Do make the change.

    Your comments about Intel's leadership in the consumer SSD and enterprise SSD development pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    Intel essentially created the consumer market for these SSDs. Not OCZ, Marvel and Sandforce. They are the dogs eating the crumbs.

    Intel does some serious prototype testing before these products hit the shelves. Far more than its competitors.

    This is another well balanced, high quality SSD.
  • ClagMaster - Sunday, October 2, 2011 - link

    When I mean well balanced, I mean this is not a SSD for the obscessive-compulsive speed free with money to burn.

    This SSD is a good balance of cost, performance and reliability for the enterprise space. Its optimized for cost and reliability which limits performance somewhat.

    Althoug slow compared to a Vertex 3, the SSD710 would still provide fine performance for consumer PC's as a boot drive.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Sunday, October 2, 2011 - link

    "slow compared to a Vertex 3, the SSD710 would still provide fine performance"

    Wouldn't it be nice to have quantified results??? Like Windows boot time, time to launch programs, and time to open big files.

    Synthetic benchmarks are both inaccurate, and provide no relative information. And synthetic benchmarks have been known to be inaccurate, on Anand's own site!

    In IOPS, RAID0 was 20-38% faster; then the loading *time* comparison had RAID0 giving equal and slightly worse performance! Anand concluded, "Bottom line: RAID-0 arrays will win you just about any benchmark, but they'll deliver virtually nothing more than that for real world desktop performance."

    Anand stays stubborn to his flawed SSD performance test methods. If anyone is deciding between a Vertex 3 or an Intel, the single most important data would be the quantified time differences in doing different operation. You'll have to go to another website to find that out.

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