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Intel rolls out solid-state drives



Rick Merritt
(08/19/2008 7:38 PM EDT)
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Intel Corp. launched a family of solid-state drives Tuesday (Aug. 19) 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 three times 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 (Los Gatos, Calif.).

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 hard disk drives.

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

Intel said it gets its performance boost from a controller that uses ten 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 80 Gbyte drives for desktops and notebooks within 30 days and 160 Gbyte versions early next year using its multi-level cell NAND flash chips. They will support reads at 250 Mbytes/s, writes at up to 70 Mbytes/s and 85 microsecond read latency

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

The server drives can deliver 35,000 I/O operations/s on a 4 KByte read and 3,300 IOPS on a 4 KByte write. The drives come in 1.8- 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 100 Gbytes/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 hard disk drives 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 chip sets coming in 2009.