This morning, Intel announced it's latest line of solid state drives designed for use in normal computers and workstations. They sent over a couple for us to test, which I've been doing this week. Unlike Intel's last-generation 530 series SSD, which used a Sandforce controller, the new 730 series drives use a controller that Intel developed in house for use in their datacenter drives. By combining that knowledge with cherry picked controller and flash chips, the 730 series drives run at higher clock speeds than their datacenter equivalents and are effectively able to saturate the SATA 6Gbps bus.The big problem hasn't been performance--even cheap SSDs will blow the doors off of traditional hard drives--it's reliability. But while hard drives are well established technology at this point, some early SSDs suffered serious reliability problems. Drives using the Sandforce controller, in particular, suffered serious problems that lead to blue screens and even data loss. Intel's Sandforce-powered drives managed to avoid most of the problems that plagued other vendors using the same Sandforce controller.
Even without controller problems, the flash memory used in SSDs has a finite life cycle--the number of times you can write to an individual cell of memory is limited. While drives ship with some cells reserved to replace the cells that die, once enough cells stop working, the drive will be unusable. That's not necessarily a reason to avoid SSDs though. Even with the minimum average daily write ratings of 20GB, the flash memory in most SSDs will last more than five years. And because the price per gigabyte of SSD storage is still dropping quickly, it's unlikely that you'll be using the same SSD five years from now.
Where does the Intel 730 series of SSDs fit in? The drive comes in capacities of 240GB and 480GB, although Intel hasn't ruled out larger capacities if people want them. I was told to expect MSRP pricing around $1/GB. Both drives use 20nm MLC NAND flash. I was a little disappointed that these are standard 2.5-inch SATA 6Gbps drives. With pretty much every consumer-level SSD able to saturate the SATA 6gbps bus, there just isn't much room to improve performance. We won't see another big leap in SSD performance until you can plug drives directly into the PCI-Express bus, hopefully sometime later this year.
On paper, it seems like the biggest improvement to this drive is reliability. Both drives come with a 5 year warranty, and both are rated for a very large number of daily writes--the 480GB drive is rated for 70GB of writes a day and the 240GB drive is rated for 50GB of writes a day. That means the 480GB drive is rated for almost 130TB of writes over its lifetime.