High-endurance MLC flash powers Intel 710 Series SSD


— 5:33 PM on September 14, 2011

Intel has officially lifted the curtain on the latest addition to its growing family of SSDs. The new 710 Series SSD is squarely aimed at enterprise environments and is designed to supplant the X25-E, which has been with us for about three years now. By far the biggest difference between the 710 Series and its forebear is the type of flash memory that populates the drive. The X25-E uses SLC memory, while the 710 Series employs MLC NAND. This ain't your run-of-the-mill MLC flash, though. The 710 Series uses High Endurance Technology (HET) NAND that's a cut above the flash found in consumer-grade SSDs.

Interestingly, the 25-nm HET flash is built using the same production technology as the standard MLC chips that underpin Intel's 320 Series consumer SSD. There are numerous ways Intel can tweak that process to improve write/erase endurance, including changing the doping, the thickness of the oxide, and other characteristics of the NAND. Intel also bins NAND chips on both the wafer and package levels, and it tests individual blocks to ensure that they last as long as they should. The end result for the 710 Series is a whopping 30X claimed improvement in endurance over the 320 Series.

Yep, you read that right. The 320 Series 300GB is purportedly capable of writing 30TB over its lifespan. A 710 Series SSD with the very same capacity can withstand up to 1.1 petabytes of writes before burning out.

If that's not enough endurance for you, it's possible to extend the 710 Series' lifespan by tweaking the overprovisioning percentage. By default, the drive doesn't provision any flash capacity as "spare area" to be used by the controller—a rather novel approach given the fact that enterprise-grade SSDs have typically used much higher overprovisioning percentages than the 7-8% common among consumer models. Turning the 710 Series' overprovisioning dial up to 20% can improve the drive's endurance by 40-90%, depending on the total capacity. With 20% overprovisioning, the 300GB 710 Series can handle up to 1.8PB of writes. Lower capacity points get an even bigger boost, with a 20% overprovisioning sacrifice extending the 100GB model's endurance from 500 to 900TB. Intel says turning up the overprovisioning knob can improve the 710 Series' performance, as well.

Although Intel doesn't set aside any flash capacity as spare area to start, the 100GB drive does have more than 100GB worth of NAND chips onboard. The extra NAND capacity (Intel won't say exactly how much) is dedicated to a RAID-like redundancy scheme that calculates parity bits to protect against data loss due to unexpected flash failures. Similar redundancy tech is available in the 320 Series.

The 710 Series has another thing in common with the 320 Series: controller silicon. Intel refers to this chip as a second-generation version of the controller that anchored the original X25-M and X25-E, but little has changed at the hardware level. The controller still serves up 10 memory channels tied to a 3Gbps Serial ATA interface. With the 710 Series, however, Intel has revamped the firmware with high-endurance NAND in mind.

With a 3Gbps interface, the 710 Series obviously isn't going to break any speed records. Here are the drive's performance specifications.

Capacity Sequential reads Sequential writes 4KB random reads 4KB random writes
100GB 270MB/s 170MB/s 38,500 IOps 2,300 IOps
200GB 270MB/s 210MB/s 38,500 IOps 2,700 IOps
300GB 270MB/s 210MB/s 38,500 IOps 2,000 IOps

Those numbers don't compare all that favorably to the latest 6Gbps SSDs, especially when you look at random writes. That said, the 710 Series is in an entirely different class when it comes to endurance. It's also targeting completely different markets: data centers, embedded applications, and high-performance computing environments, just to name a few. And no, high-performance computing doesn't include your overclocked gaming rig.

Intel tells us 710 Series SSDs have entered mass production and are already shipping to its customers. They're not cheap, though. The 100GB model sells for $649 in 1,000-unit quantities, and you'll have to pony up $1,289 and $1,929 for the 200 and 300GB flavors, respectively. Of course, that's still a lot less than the cost of SLC-based solutions with similar capacities.

Despite its enterprise pedigree, the 710 Series only gets three years of warranty coverage. That's particularly disappointing in light of the fact that the 320 Series was upgraded to a five-year warranty this summer. Intel expects the 710 Series to have the lowest annualized failure rate in the industry, so perhaps it will consider a similar warranty upgrade.

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