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Intel’s 910 PCIe SSD Enterprise Flash Controller Takes Aim At The Datacenter Storage Market

Intel is set to unleash a new SSD on the world’s datacenters and financial institutions. The 910 series is Intel’s first crack at a PCIe SSD and it’s aimed squarely at the high end. Using 4 Intel 10-channel SAS controllers, a PCI to SAS interface from LSI, and up to 800GB of high end HET-MLC, the 910 could shake up the enterprise space.

Intel’s previous enterprise class products have been SATA II drives. Starting with the X25-E and later the 720 series, Intel has not yet moved into the upper echelon of the enterprise space.

The 910 series aims to rectify that, as well as taking aim at products from traditional players like FusionIO. Intel had a tight collaboration with Hitachi, which saw new Intel 25nm SLC paired with the first incarnation of a 6Gbps Intel controller. That same controller now finds itself in the new 910 arrayed in a quartet of controllers.

The 910 will be available in 400GB and 800GB versions, though both vary only in the amount of flash. Both are otherwise similar. The 400GB and 800GB 910s should be just south of $2,000 and $4000 respectively. The price may sound steep to consumers, but Intel’s use of super-high endurance MLC helps keep the price competitive and capacities high, giving the 910 ~$5 per GB on board. SLC solutions are close to ~11$/GB or higher, so it’s a comparative bargain. The 910 is not bootable, though this not necessary for most enterprise applications.

The 800GB 910 should offer up to 180,000 IOPS on reads and 75,000 random writes. Sustained sequential bandwidth is up to 2GB/sec for reads and up to 1GB/sec for writes. The 910 was designed to drop into most servers form factors and has a 25w thermal envelope. Intel claims performance can be further boosted by using a management utility to set the 910 to use 28w, above PCIe x8 specs but supported by most modern servers. Those 3 extra watts are capable of giving the 910 even more performance, so those looking to squeeze every extra IOP-per-watt will be pleased.

The 800GB sandwiches two flash modules onto the main PCB. The 4 SAS controllers are placed in between the daughterboard connectors, 4 capacitors, and the PCIe-to-SAS bridge. Both capacities are half height, half length units capable of squeezing in most server form factors. The 400GB has only one of the flash modules, and it’s performance is lower as a result.

It’s hard to doubt Intel’s credibility when they want to tackle a market. Intel and LSI both have products which, while not similar, will still compete against the Virident and FusionIOs of the world. As a sign of the times, both companies are touting configuration-less installs — that is, just plug and play. Intel (and others) are keen to point out their flash controller hardware as an advantage in relation to products which use the host system’s resources (i.e. “raw flash”). Those products can sap valuable system resources from servers, so it’s a good point to argue on Intel and LSI’s part. The Intel uses soft-raid, as the 910 shows up as four separate devices which need the host system to manage data between them. Those calculation are trivial to today’s processors, but they do require a minuscule portion of the host’s processing time, but nothing like that which raw flash products require to perform the necessary calculations which power SSDs of all kinds. In that sense, the 910 is akin to a LSI 9211 HBA with 4 Intel SAS SSDs connected.

In the future, new versions using different flash or using newer PCIe technology could be developed, but the x8 PCIe 910 is already looking fierce. More will be known when the drive becomes widely available, but more competition is good for both the high-end enterprise and low-end consumer markets alike.

Intel originally had a PCIe SSD similar to the 910 on their road map at some point, but using SLC. Intel’s super-binned HET-MLC does have near-SLC endurance when over-provisioned, but also suffers from much greater latency for read and write operations over SLC. Intel could easily strap 25nm SLC on the 910 and call it a 911, but it’s unclear if that would make sense in light of the performance and longevity of the current solution. The 910 is very competitively priced, though the enterprise market is less cost conscious than the consumer market.

The 910 marks the first time Intel has used a 6Gbps controller of their own design in their own product, though it probably won’t be the last. Many have been waiting for the next generation Intel controller to make an appearance, so in one respect, that wait is over.

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