SAN FRANCISCO-Intel has been developing solid-state flash memory processors for as long as flash has been around, which is about 20 years. But only on Aug. 19 at the Intel Developer Forum here did the world’s largest chip maker announce its first-ever flash-based SATA drives for data storage.
Intel’s High-Performance SATA (Serial ATA) solid-state drives are data storage devices that use flash-based memory to store a computer’s data, emulating-and even replacing-hard drives in some computers.
NAND flash memory, which has much faster read/write performance than conventional disk drives, originated with Toshiba in the mid-1980s and forms the core of the removable USB storage devices known as USB flash drives, as well as most memory card formats now available. Apple’s iPod and iPhone are two of the most currently successful commercial usages of NAND flash.
Flash SSDs are slowly beginning to move into the enterprise data center market, led by EMC, which started shipping flash drives as options for its high-end Symmetrix storage system arrays in March.
But industry analysts are generally in agreement that it is far too early to tell how well these pioneering heavy-duty SSDs will hold up over time in often-punishing 24/7 production environments.
Ready for the Enterprise?
“Not all SSDs are created equal. We’ve actually been disappointed with the current level of performance on SSDs [currently in the market],” Intel Product Manager Troy Winslow told me. “We’ve been working on these for a long time; Intel has a deep understanding of solid state. These new SSDs that we’re announcing today are really setting the bar high for performance-oriented [SSD SATA] solutions, whether they be nonvolatile memory caching or solid-state solutions.
“They bridge the gap that currently exists between the memory and the CPU.”
All the new processors feature MLC (multilevel cell) and SLC (single-level cell) storage.
The new SSD product line, designed for embedding into laptops, handheld devices and servers, comprises the following:
–Servers: Intel High Performance SATA Drive (1.8-inch and 2.5-inch); available in capacities of 32GB through 160GB (both MLC and SLC); targeting client and server/storage markets. Intel is now sampling 32GB SLC and 80GB MLC SSDs; MLCs will become generally available in September, SLCs in November.
–Notebooks and desktops: Intel Turbo Memory (cache) for application acceleration; enables direct control of which applications to accelerate; user pinning feature allows the choice of which applications or files are stored in nonvolatile memory.
–Embedded servers: Intel Z-U130 (for USB).
–Embedded MIDs (mobile information devices): Intel Z-U140 (PATA PoP).
–Network notebooks and desktops: Intel Z-P230 (PATA module): Features standard IDE interface; available in 4GB and 8GB capacities; 16GB will be available in September. Read/write access: up to 35/7MB per second.
The big news for IT managers, however, involves the high-performance SATA drive SSDs.
“CPU performance has been primarily driven by advances in our core architecture and multicore architecture, and has increased about 175-fold over the last 12 years, whereas hard-drive performance has only increased 30 percent,” Winslow said.
“In essence, the CPU is starved for memory. So we’ve been taking our time and developing two types of SSDs: for the enterprise, and for client notebooks and PCs. We’ve raised the bar very high here [with the 32GB to 160GB SSDs].”
MLC is designed for desktops and notebooks; SLC is for enterprise flash. Winslow said Intel has finally come up with an MLC flash chip that will provide 250MB-per-second read/write performance and can be expected to have “at least five years of useful life in a notebook or PC application.”
The knock on flash has always been that its durability is suspect.
“This has been the challenge for the industry, to design NAND flash memory that can do more than just facilitate large file transfers of music and photos to and from USB thumb drives,” Winslow said.
“When you go into a compute environment, you’re dealing with much smaller blocks and much more frequent reads and writes. With our proprietary controller, our firmware and 10-channel architecture, we’ve been able to design an MLC device that’s in a class by itself,” he said.
Most flash SSDs now on the market use only four to six channels in their architecture. Winslow said Intel’s can be virtualized from 10 physical channels to up to 20 virtualized channels, which speeds performance markedly.
Intel released the specifications and some performance benchmarks on the SSDs at the conference, which continues through Aug. 21.