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Behind the scenes with Intel's SSD division

A look at reliability, validation, and frickin' particle accelerators

In early March, Intel gathered industry analysts and members of the tech press in Folsom, California to talk SSDs. The city is home base for Intel's Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group, otherwise known as NSG, which is responsible for the development and testing of Intel solid-state drives. The NSG had a story to tell about how its design and validation work produces extremely reliable SSDs. We got hard numbers on failure rates, details about efforts to make SSDs more dependable, and a peek behind the scenes at the Folsom facility.

We were also let in on a little secret—an easter egg, if you will. Remember the Intel 730 Series we reviewed in February? You know, the one with the skull on it? Well, it also has a bonus that glows under UV lighting. Good thing I have an old black light left over from my misspent youth.

I can't decide if the logo is cheesy or cool. It's probably a little of both. Intel is working on other aesthetic flourishes, which certainly can't hurt on premium-priced products like the 730 Series.

With that revelation out of the way, let's get down to business.

SSDs store precious personal information, and they increasingly power the datacenters behind popular online services. Reliability is of paramount importance. The trouble is, it's rarely quantified. SSD makers have traditionally shied away from providing field reliability data, and retailers typically don't disclose manufacturer-specific return rates. We're left sifting through user reviews and forum threads to get a sense of which drives are better than others.

The anecdotal evidence spread across those sources suggests Intel SSDs are among the most reliable. And, wouldn't you know, the snippets of data shared with us seem to agree.

Back in 2010, Intel decided to convert all of its corporate PCs to solid-state storage. The firm deployed its own SSDs, of course, and the failure rate for those drives has thus far been five times lower than for the mechanical drives they replaced. That's an impressive decrease, especially since it reaches back four years. SSDs have matured quite a bit over the last couple of generations.

Intel didn't discuss specific failure rates for the SSDs used in its own PCs. However, it did provide data on over six million drives shipped as part of its business-oriented Pro family. This product line has an annual failure rate target of 0.73%, and Intel has been comfortably under that mark for quite some time.

Source: Intel

Even the return rates have met Intel's AFR goal. More impressively, perhaps, the annual failure rate during this period never exceeded 0.4%. For much of 2013, the failure rate was well under 0.2%.

Intel is meeting its targets for datacenter and client SSDs as a whole, too. Venkatesh Vasudevan, Director of NSG Quality, Reliability & Validation, pulled up the following graph during his presentation:

Source: Intel

These numbers are based only on 2-3 million drives, Vasudevan said, and the sample size is small and skewed for the datacenter SSDs. Still, failure rates were below 0.2% for pretty much all of 2013, and they were around 0.1% for the last seven months of the year. That blip at nearly 0.8% on the datacenter plot represents some initial teething problems with Intel's then-new DC-series drives, Vasudevan clarified.

We don't have similar data from other drive makers, so it's hard to put Intel's numbers into perspective. However, Vasudevan pointed out that IHS analyst Ryan Chien told Computerworld in September that he'd seen data suggesting that "client SSD annual failure rates under warranty tend to be around 1.5%." Based on that information, the assertion by NSG Marketing Director Pete Hazen that Intel SSDs have "best-in-class annual failure rates" seems pretty plausible.

Intel's field reliability data also lends some credibility to its argument for deploying dual 730 Series drives in striped RAID 0 arrays on high-end desktop PCs. RAID 0 doubles the odds of losing data to a catastrophic drive failure, but with failure rates as low as Intel claims, that doesn't seem like such a big danger.