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Intel eyes solid-state drive market

Posted: 21 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solid-state drives? storage devices? Robson cards?

Intel Corp. launched a family of solid-state drives (SSDs) claiming significant performance advances over its many competitors. However, the company would not reveal prices, an Achilles heel of the emerging storage devices.

Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo said they will use the drives on their notebooks and Sun Microsystems said it will use them in its servers. With the new products, HP displaced an existing vendor to use only Intel SSDs as options for all its business notebooks. "Their performance level is head and shoulders above anyone else," hitting levels of throughput near the maximum possible under Windows, said Walter Fry, a notebook architect at HP.

Fry said the Intel SSDs provide as much as 3x the performance of some competitors. HP will not adopt other vendor's drives until they get within ten percent of the Intel performance, he added.

"Most SSD vendors have products based on flash-card designs, but Intel took a fresh look at how the NAND chips communicate with a system and developed a new controller," said Jim Handy with Objective Analysis.

Handy said he has not yet seen independent benchmarks for the Intel drives. Whatever the performance, SSDs are still expensive at $8 or more per Gbyte compared to prices approaching 25 cents per Gbyte for HDDs.

"We don't expect the two to come to parity anytime in the future," said Fry.

Performance boost
Intel said it gets its performance boost from a controller that uses 10 parallel channels. The channels support the native command queuing technique of the serial ATA interface enabling up to 32 concurrent operations. Chips in the drives use the Open NAND Flash Interface version 1.0 co-developed by Intel and Micron.

Intel will ship 80Gbyte drives for desktops and notebooks within 30 days and 160Gbyte versions early next year using its multilevel cell NAND flash chips. They will support reads at 250MBps, writes at up to 70MBps and 85?s read latency.

Severs versions based on single-level cell chips, initially at 32Gbytes shipping by the end of the year. A 64Gbyte version will ship early next year. The server drives will support reads at 250MBps, writes at up to 170MBps and 75?s read latency.

The server drives can deliver 35,000 I/O operations/s on a 4Kbyte read and 3,300 IOPS on a 4Kbyte write. The drives come in 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch sizes, similar to hard disks.

Intel said the desktop and notebook drives can last up to five years with writes of up to 100Gbytes/day, far beyond typical user practice. It did not specify lifetime for the server drives.

SSDs have much shorter than the product life times than HDDs due to the uneven wearing of flash cells. Intel claims its wear leveling algorithm keeps cell usage to within a four percent variation across the device.

Intel's initial foray into flash modules for notebooks, its so-called Robson cards used for notebook system cache, failed to gain market traction. That's because the cards had relatively low performance, high prices and were tied to Microsoft Vista. Intel will support new versions of the cards across a wider variety of Windows version with chipsets coming in 2009.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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