Intel 910 Series 800GB PCI-E SSD Review

Author: AkG
Date: July 18, 2012
Product Name: 910 800GB
Part Number: SSDPEDPX800G301
Warranty: 5 Years
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Introducing the Intel 910

When engineering began on the 910-series, Intel’s main priority was to make an enterprise grade PCI-E storage device which was not only extremely powerful, but one that was also user-friendly. With this philosophy of high performance without offering up ease of use as a sacrificial lamb, Intel set about choosing the key components that make the 910 unique. The first and most obvious design choice is the half height, x8 PCI-E 2.0 form factor.

By opting for a half height form factor – but with full height PCI slot covers also included - the Intel 910 can fit into nearly any server, workstation or even consumer chassis on the market today. In order to fit all the NAND ICs, controllers and other components into such a small footprint, Intel had to opt for a three board layer cake style design instead of the typical dual board layout.

Naturally, the layout has increased cooling requirements over similar drives due to the lack of room between the hot running parts which causes less passive cooling potential via convection. As such a huge amount of airflow is needed to keep the Intel 910 within its operational limits. According to the documents we received, in standard configuration it needs an airflow rate 200 litres per minute and when in “high performance” mode requires 300LPM. As a side note, the high performance mode requires 38 watts peak and 28 watts average power be provided via the PCI-E slot as the 910 doesn’t use an external power connector.

Looking at the increase cooling and power specifications one would think that this ‘high performance’ mode would be similar to factory overclocking of a video card. This is actually not the case and a better analogy would be to refer to the Standard Mode is a factory under-clocked setting. By having this lower power, lower cooling mode as the default setting, the 910 is able to be used in a wide array of scenarios.

Cooling is a major consideration for enterprise administrators and the reduced heat – which does not sacrifice any of the specified performance – will be a welcome addition. By reducing the wattage requirements Intel was also able to ensure that the out of box configuration would fit within any PCI-E’s board specifications. However, as long as your system can handle the added power and cooling requirements, using the max performance mode does not void your warranty or in any way reduce the 910’s operational lifespan.

In practical terms, the high performance mode does require significantly more cooling and uses slightly more power, but neither should be of major concern outside of a server rack. The only potential stumbling point is making sure your case has optimal internal air flow as the 910 does run hot enough to cook itself without proper ventilation.

In order to keep from being able to fry eggs on the 910’s PCBs we simply orientated a pair of Noctua NF-P12-1300, 120mm fans to push air over and between the layers. This was more than enough to keep things cool, even in high performance mode and in all likelihood one fan would have been more than adequate.

It is also worth noting that you do not need to reboot to change between the two modes, a simple command via the command line is all that is needed. So if you do find the device overheating it is easy to rectify without any downtime, something which is just as important to Enterprise administrators as cooling and power consumption.

The actual hardware components Intel has selected also highlight the low hassle design philosophy of this model. While the Intel 910 is not bootable, it is virtually a “plug and play” device that will be recognized upon first bootup and simply listed as four separate “drives” – or Logical Unit Numbers (“LUN”) - in Windows’ Device Manager due to the RAID controller unit.

Unlike some other manufacturers, Intel opted for a single a LSI SAS2008 “Falcon” controller to facilitate communications between the 910’s connected albeit separate sections. The Falcon may not be precisely cutting edge, but it is a well respected controller known for its low latency, low CPU overhead and relatively high performance. More importantly, since it has been available –and widely used – for quite some time, most operating systems come with stock drivers already included. However Intel does recommend upgrading the drivers to their own in order to avoid issues.

Equally impressive is the fact that you the end user has complete control over the four LUNs and can configure them any way they please. If you require one, two, three or four “drives” the 910 is more than accommodating.

Further reinforcing this admirable ease of use philosophy, Intel has once again avoided the popular yet not very adaptable LSI/SandForce controllers for the four “drives”. Instead, they’re using the jointly developed EW29AA31AA1 Intel/Hitachi SSD chips.

These controllers are actually being used by Hitachi is using in their UltraStor solid state drives and unlike SandForce products they are highly capable of handling non-trim environments, which is what RAID and PCI-E based SSDs utilize by default. This choice of controller helps make the 910 a “hands off” drive which will not require constant monitoring like a SandForce based unit would. More to the point, the four EW29 controllers handle all of the “idle time garbage collection” at their level and require no additional CPU cycles to keep the 910’s NAND in tip-top shape.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious first: there are a dozen NAND slots that have gone unpopulated and they will be utilized for higher capacity models in the future.

Speaking of the NAND, unlike most enterprise devices this unit eschews SLC and standard MLC ICs for some simple reasons. Standard 25nm MLC NAND has an erase cycle life of between 3,000 and 5,000 which is very low for use in constant high demand environments like the typical server. By that same token the traditional choice of SLC - with its much longer life – would have significantly increased the upfront cost of an already expensive storage device.

Rather than opting for one of these two extremes, Intel has side stepped the issue by using what they call HET MLC NAND, or what the rest of the industry simply calls e-MLC or “enterprise MLC” NAND. High Endurance Technology MLC NAND is approximately thirty times more durable than standard MLC NAND but not nearly as costly to manufacture as SLC NAND. This in turn allows Intel to offer such massive drives for an actually reasonable price, while still being able to guarantee it for 5 years at 10 full drives writes everyday for those five years. To put that in more practical terms, Intel guarantees the drive’s NAND for over 14 petabytes of writes for the 800GB model and over 7 petabytes for the 400GB model.

The only negative to using such durable MLC NAND is that it does sacrifice some small file performance to gain such longevity. However, with four controllers working in tandem and such a dizzying number of NAND ICs, this ”issue” can easily be overlooked, especially considering the rated specifications of 2GB/s read, 1GB/s write sequential write performance and 180,000IOPS / 75,000IOPS small file read / write performance.

Also noteworthy are the four large capacitors this device comes equipped with. These are meant to provide more than enough reserve power to allow the 910 to flush its buffers and complete any outstanding writes in the event of unexpected power loss.

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