New Intel PCIe SSD rides eight lanes for improved throughput

New Intel PCIe SSD features dual NVMe controllers and eight lanes of PCI Express 3.0 to target HPC, database and big-data analytic server workloads.

Intel Corp. this week launched new P3608 Series solid-state drives featuring dual non-volatile memory express (NVMe) controllers and eight lanes of PCI Express (PCIe) 3.0 to target high-performance computing, database and big-data analytics workloads.

The dual NVMe controller design enables the Solid-State Drive (SSD) Data Center (DC) P3608 Series to scale capacity and performance and improve quality of service and latency over Intel's single-controller models, according to Jonmichael Hands, product marketing manager for Intel's DC SSDs. The new Intel PCIe SSD uses a PLX switch from Avago Technologies to aggregate the NVMe controllers.

The DC P3608 half-height, half-length (HHHL), low-profile add-in card doubles the maximum capacity to 4 TB over the company's previously released P3700, P3600 and P3500 PCIe SSDs, which use the same NVMe controller but have only one controller per drive. The new P3608 PCIe cards are available with capacities of 1.6 TB, 3.2 TB and 4 TB.

The P3608 add-in card is the first Intel SSD to support eight lanes of PCIe 3.0. Hands said the maximum data transfer rate of 5 GB per second (GB/s) is nearly twice the throughput of Intel's previously released P3700, P3600 and P3500 SSDs, which supply four lanes of PCIe 3.0.

Hands said Intel has the capability to support eight lanes of PCIe with the P3700 and P3500 product lines and would be open to adding it if there is sufficient customer demand. Intel's four-lane PCIe SSDs come in two form factors: HHHL add-in cards and 2.5-inch-by-15-mm U.2 (formerly known as SFF-8639) drives. Hands said there is currently no U.2 option for 8-lane PCIe.

"Intel is pushing hard for these other standard PCI Express form factors such as the U.2 2.5 inch and M.2," Hands said. "But there's still plenty of servers out there and people that have server designs that use PCI Express add-in card slots, and we thought a by-eight interface would give them the highest density in the same physical form factor for that add-in card slot."

The new P3608 PCIe SSD supports three complete drive writes per day (DWPD) through the five-year warranty period and uses Intel's high-endurance, 20-nanometer multilevel cell (MLC) NAND flash, with Intel's advanced algorithms for end-to-end data protection and error correction code, to prevent wear-out.

Hands said the P3608 has a similar price per GB to the higher endurance P3700 Series, which also uses Intel's high-endurance technology (HET) NAND. The P3700 provides 10 or more DWPD. The less costly P3500 uses standard-endurance, 20-nanometer MLC NAND and targets read-intensive workloads.

"The way SSDs are differentiated in the market as far as pricing is mainly due to performance and endurance," Hands said. "[With] the higher endurance technology NAND that we use, the more expensive the NAND is and the more NAND you have to put on the actual drive."

Hands said Intel views 3 DWPD as the "sweet spot for some of the data center applications." He said the 1.6 TB P3608 SSDs are optimized for random and mixed workloads and generally can fit an entire database on the drive. Hands said the 3.2 TB P3608 PCIe card offers the best mix of performance and capacity, and the 4 TB SSD provides the highest density and bandwidth, making it suitable for big-data applications.

Although the P3608 PCIe SSD targets server-based storage, there is nothing prohibiting its use with demanding workloads in workstations, according to Hands.

Intel began shipping the P3608 Series this week in high volume to OEMs, including Cray, which Hands said is currently the largest customer for that product. Intel also plans to make the P3608 SSDs available through the channel for sales to enterprise customers. The suggested retail price is $8,759 for the 4 TB model, $7,009 for the 3.2 TB SSD and $3,509 for the 1.6 TB drive, according to Intel.

Intel was the leader in shipments of data center/enterprise SSDs in the first and second quarters of 2015 and tops in revenue in the second quarter, according to Fang Zhang, a senior storage analyst at Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Technology.

Dennis Martin, president of Demartek LLC, which operates an on-site test lab in Golden, Colorado, said Intel's chief competitor Samsung last month announced an eight-lane NVMe device.

"Eight lanes are significant in that it doubles the size of the pipe" to enable higher throughput rates, Martin wrote in an e-mail.

Jim Handy, chief analyst at Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, California, said he expects Intel's leading competition in enterprise PCIe SSDs to come from SanDisk (with its Fusion-io acquisition), Western Digital's HGST (through its Virident acquisition) and Samsung.

"Samsung burst into this market with the industry's first NVMe version and will probably be very aggressive to get market share," Handy wrote in an e-mail. "That's the way Samsung tends to work."

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