Although SSDs have been around for a couple of years now, they're still premium items. The harshest critics of the technology have now conceded that the superior access times and high transfer rates more than make up for the high cost involved, but mainstream users still have their doubts. With traditional mechanical drives headed to 4TB in the next six months and 2TB drives now selling for less than 80 USD, it's easy to see why some have put off owning an SSD. That might sound like I'm getting soft on the technology, but rest assured, I still believe a modern solid state drive is the best upgrade going on the market today when looking for a better user experience and increased productivity.
The second best upgrade going these days is the hybrid solution. Products like LSI's CacheCade and Adaptec's MaxCache brought SSD caching to the enterprise sector of the market and now the technology is ready for mainstream users. SSD caching places frequently read data on a high speed SSD that is used in conjunction with a mechanical platter drive. The data resides on both drives, but when called upon is read back from the SSD if available. In theory, SSD caching allows smaller, much cheaper SSDs to be used as the 'cache drive' and thus the overall cost is reduced.
This theory was made a reality when SilverStone released the HDDBoost, a low cost product that made SSD caching available at a mainstream price. While the HDDBoost was a very good product, it still added additional cost to a system build and wasn't the on-board solution system integrators were looking for. In this world where desktop systems start out at 399.99 USD, an even lower cost integrated system needed to be developed to bring the technology closer to the mainstream market where large volume brings in large profits.
Intel was quick to fulfill the needs of their customer base and set their sights on an on-board solution that allows system builders to bring the performance gains of solid state technology to mainstream customers. The end product was the Z68 chipset. Z68 includes Intel's Smart Response Technology, also known as on-board SSD caching and is part of Intel's Rapid Response Technology that controls RAID functions on Intel chipsets.
Today we're going to look at two solutions for bringing Smart Response Technology to your system. Both are based on GIGABYTE motherboards, some of the best we've used to date. Since Intel SRT requires a Z68 (or future) chipset, a new motherboard is required right from the start. Intel Smart Response Technology should become a part of most near future Intel chipsets and we expect to see the technology for several years to come.
Besides the motherboard, you're also going to need a solid state drive and this is where things get a bit tricky. Intel has released a Smart Response Technology specific SSD, the 311 Series. The 311 is available in two options, the first a 2.5" drive and the second a small mSATA version that will be used in notebooks and on some desktop motherboards like the GIGABYTE GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD.
Let's take a look at the motherboards we'll be using today and the Intel 311 Series SSDs.
GIGABYTE has released nineteen motherboards based on the Z68 chipset. All of these products support Smart Response Technology with SATA SSDs. A select few GIGABYTE Z68 motherboards support Intel's mSATA 311 Series model SSD. Today we'll be testing two motherboards, one with mSATA and one with an Intel 311 Series 20GB SLC SSD.
The first board we are looking at is the GIGABYTE GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD. The iSSD portion of the name comes from the onboard 20GB mSATA SSD that is bundled with the motherboard. GIGABYTE also sells a GA-Z68XP-UD3 board that ships without the Intel mSATA SSD. Newegg lists the iSSD model at 239.99 at the time of writing and the non-iSSD model for 149.99. Both packages are identical outside included SSD and the amounts of features included are more than what most mainstream users will utilize.
GIGABYTE also sells a budget motherboard that is capable of accepting an Intel mSATA SSD, the GA-Z68P-DS3. This product is also available at Newegg and currently sells for 99.99.
It should be noted that when using the built in mSATA that you lose a standard SATA port on the motherboard.
As we stated before, GIGABYTE has released nineteen motherboards based on the Z68 chipset. It would be impossible for us to cover each board here today, but we are an enthusiast site and want to showcase some of the higher end offerings as well.
Above we see the GIGABYTE GA-Z68XP-UD5, a premium motherboard that currently costs 269.99 USD at Newegg and includes several features not found on the mainstream targeted motherboards like the UD3 variants listed above.
In order to break down the cost of getting a working Intel SRT system together, let's first see the SSDs.
Intel currently lists two models in the 311 Series of products. Both have 20GB of capacity and use single-level cell flash, the same used in many expensive enterprise SSDs. Both the 2.5" and mSATA 311 Series drives are rated at 200MB/s read and 105MB/s write speeds with a read IOPS rating of 37,000 and a write IOPS rating of 3,300. The performance numbers don't look all that impressive, especially when compared to new SATA III drives like the Intel 510 Series, but there are some things to keep in mind before throwing stones.
In the past we've shown that multi-level cell SSDs slow considerably when data is present on the drive. Data being on the drive affects MLC SSDs more than it does SLC SSDs. Since you want your cache drive to hold as much data is possible, your SSD cache drive will be filled to 100% of capacity nearly all of the time.
In testing we've also observed that data is often swapped in and out of the cache SSD; this is a smart system with some intelligence after all. Frequent random writes are an enemy of MLC SSDs and you have a limited number of writes before you run out and lose the ability to write to a page in the flash.
SLC has a much higher endurance rating and that is a big reason why Intel chose to use SLC flash in their 311 Series.
The Intel 311 Series 20GB mSATA drive packs quite a bit in a small package. At about the same size as a notebook WiFi card, the 311 mSATA is perfect for notebooks and onboard desktop motherboards. We've already seen some notebooks with mSATA ports and the number is growing. Newegg lists the mSATA 311 Series at 119.99 at the time of writing.
It's important to note that even though the GIGABYTE GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD includes a mSATA Intel 311 Series drive that it can be used in future builds. This will depend on GIGABYTE releasing more products with a mSATA port on the motherboard for desktop use, or your ability to install the drive in a notebook later on when purchased.
The 2.5" Intel 311 Series drive looks like any 2.5" SSD selling today and uses a SATA port for connectivity. SATA is the universal standard for storage drives these days and your upgrade options are less limited than they are with an mSATA drive. Newegg lists the 2.5" Intel 311 Series at 114.99.
The initial cost difference between the two 311 Series SSDs is quite small, around 5 Dollars. This is if the drives are sold separately and not bundled with another product. The best deal initially is the GIGABYTE GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD that ships with the mSATA SSD. The price premium for the -iSSD is less around 90 Dollars when compared to the non-iSSD model. This is less than the 120 Dollars it costs to buy either of the Intel 311 Series SSDs.
Even though it costs more from the start, the 311 Series 2.5" drive may be a better choice for someone looking to upgrade every year or every other year. With the mSATA 311 you are depending on motherboard companies to release future products with mSATA onboard and there are no guarantees it'll happen.
Intel Smart Response Technology Explained
Intel defines Smart Response Technology as:
Intel Smart Response Technology implements storage I/O caching to provide users with faster response times like system boot and application startup. On a system with [A] traditional HDD, performance of these operations are limited by the HDD, particularly when there may be other I/O intensive background activities running simultaneously like system updates or virus scans. I/O caching accelerates system response by putting frequently used blocks of disk data on an SSD, which provides dramatically faster access to user data than an HDD. The user sees the full capacity of the HDD with the traditional single drive letter (i.e. C:) with the system responsiveness similar to an SSD.
In essence, it works like this. If you boot your computer often then the smart portion of the technology will tell the system to cache your boot up files. The first time you boot your system the files will not be cached, so startup will occur from the standard HDD. The second time you boot your system the files will be cached and startup will occur faster.
The same is true for your applications. If you run Photoshop often, the long launch sequence is stored on the SSD. Files like ISOs, music and such on the other hand are not cached on the SSD, another part of the smart side of the technology.
One issue we've observed in the lab is that all of this caching takes up space on the SSD. With Intel only releasing 20GB models, the available space tends to fill up quickly if you launch several different programs. The technology is always trying to cache your frequently used data, so what may have been cached two days ago may not be cached when you want to use it today if you've launched several other programs in between. At this time SRT is limited to just 64GB of caching space, even if you want to use a 120GB drive. The spare area is given another drive letter if you choose to use it. This can be a positive in some cases or a negative in others.
If you happen to have a 120GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD with a SandForce SF-1200 controller capable of reading 285MB/s and writing 275MB/s, then limiting the drive to just 64GB of capacity for the cache is a good thing. This will allow the drive to reserve the spare area for background work and keep the drive running faster than if it was filled. We believe Intel used some type of real time compression with the IO cache algorithm, but were never able to verify that claim with Intel.
To further complicate Intel Smart Response Technology, two modes are offered. The first is Enhanced Mode, a read only cache mode that uses up to 64GB of space to cache files that can be read back quickly. The second mode is Maximized Mode, a mixed read / write cache system that allows the SSD to cache system writes and later transfers the data written to the SSD to the HDD. In Maximum Mode you gain the ability to write data to the SSD so it happens quicker, but you also use space that was once reserved for reading back cached data.
Test System Setup and ATTO Baseline Performance
You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test products in this article.
For the end user Intel Smart Response Technology is a system wide performance booster, but when it comes to benchmarks the process of showing a performance increase is pure hell. Most storage benchmark programs use data streams that are not affected by the cache system and thus you can't run most off the shelf benchmark programs and see a difference in performance.
Today we'll take a look at some PCMark Vantage runs with both of our Z68 motherboards. One board will use the Intel 2.5" 311 Series SSD and the other will use the Intel mSATA 311 Series SSD that ships with the GIGABYTE Z68XP-UD3-iSSD. Each system will be tested in Enhanced and Maximum Modes with the same HDD.
ATTO Baseline Performance
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.34
ATTO is used by many disk manufacturers to determine the read and write speeds that will be presented to customers.
Before we get started comparing the mSATA SSD to the 2.5" SSD, let's first look at the difference between the Enhanced Mode versus the Maximum Mode.
With SRT running in Enhanced 'Read Cache Only' mode, we see the storage system writes reach just over 100MB/s. In Maximum Mode where writes are also cached the storage system is able to write data at 115MB/s.
On the surface this isn't a big improvement, but look at the 4K writes. In the 4K block size writes went from 50MB/s to 110MB/s. This is a very substantial gain in a critical area where you feel the performance increase. At the same time, though, the read speed was decreased in many block sizes when Maximum Mode was used, so you are trading off performance in one area to be used in another.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage HDD Tests Scaled
PCMark Vantage - Hard Disk Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage/
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
FutureMark has developed a good set of hard disk tests for their PCMark Vantage Suite. Windows users can count on Vantage to show them how a drive will perform in normal day to day usage scenarios. For most users these are the tests that matter since many of the old hat ways to measure performance have become ineffective to measure true Windows performance.
HDD1 - Windows Defender
HDD2 - Gaming
HDD3 - Windows Photo Gallery
HDD4 - Vista Startup
HDD5 - Windows Movie Maker
HDD6 - Windows Media Center
HDD7 - Windows Media Player
HDD8 - Application Loading
In order for Smart Response Technology to work properly when reading data back to the system, the data must be cached first. In this chart we see the bare HDD without a cache drive. Just above the bare HDD is the first Enhanced Mode run. Here we see that without the data cached performance is decreased in some areas when compared to the bare drive. Things look very different on the second Enhanced Mode run where the data being read back is cached.
With the data cached performance increases considerably in both Enhanced and Maximum Modes. Maximum Mode is where we found the highest gains in performance from Smart Response Technology.
I expected to see a bit of a performance increase from the mSATA drive, but it appears that both Intel 311 Series drives perform very close to each other.
Intel Smart Response Technology is an easy and low cost way to enhance mechanical hard drives today. The technology brings the feel and user experience of dedicated solid state drives to the user and does so without the massive cost of running a large SSD.
There are still some issues, though, that may leave some users wishing they went with a dedicated SSD. The first is the capacity of the Intel 311 Series cache drives. At just 20GB the drive isn't able to cache everything. Users who mainly surf the web and run just a handful of programs will get many cache hits and almost always feel like they're running an SSD. Power users and enthusiasts on the other hand who run several different programs will find SRT in its current form a little hit and miss.
Another issue is the hardware required. At this time only Intel's Z68 chipset supports Smart Response Technology. Over time this list will grow and end users will find SRT a good upgrade when their system starts to slow, but for now you have to buy into the tech with a new processor, motherboard, 311 Series SSD and possibly other components. Instead of going that route, some users may find a simple SSD upgrade more cost effective, especially if their current system is using a processor just a couple of years old.
We feel that the real benefits of Smart Response Technology will come in the future when nearly all Intel chipsets support the technology. At that time mainstream users who purchase low cost, off the shelf systems will be able to add a small SSD and increase their desktop systems performance.
The real winning category, though, is going to be the notebook market where it's rare to see two 2.5" HDDs in a single system. Smart Response Technology will allow notebook users to run their 1TB 2.5" platter drive and an mSATA 311 Series SSD. We're already seeing notebooks ship with mSATA connectors and it won't be long before SRT makes its way into this sector. SRT in a notebook should also increase battery life by reducing the amount of time the system needs to keep the platters spinning.
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