The SSD Diaries: Crucial's RealSSD C300by Anand Lal Shimpi on July 13, 2010 12:39 AM EST
Life just isn’t fair. When I met with Crucial at CES to talk about its first foray into the high performance SSD market I was given very high expectations for reliability and the testing that Crucial would put the drive through. We talked about the failure of other controller vendors to do adequate testing. Even Intel’s own follies. Crucial assured me that validation testing was high on the priority list.
The company already tests hundreds if not thousands of configurations for its memory. Slotting SSDs into the mix wouldn’t be difficult. In contrast, most of the vendors who ship Indilinx and SandForce drives don’t have nearly the validation experience or infrastructure in place to gain it.
Then, just weeks after I got my C300, the drive stopped working. Crucial sent me another drive which didn’t die, but let me discover that the C300 had serious issues when it came to worst case scenario performance. Similar to the original X25-M firmware when given a random enough workload, the RealSSD C300 could be backed into a corner that it would never get out of.
I dropped the C300 from my list of even potential recommendations while Crucial worked on a fix. Meanwhile SandForce’s partners had been shipping drives, with relatively few problems. To make matters worse? The majority of SandForce drives that shipped while Crucial suffered used release candidate firmware. Mass production firmware wasn’t distributed until later. And SandForce did nothing to stop it.
The moral of this story is that entering the storage market is still new territory for everyone. Company size, whether small or large, doesn’t dictate whether you’ll face a failure from a new product. The only guarantee you have is the experience of others who’ve used the drives in configurations similar to your own.
Which brings me to todays topic. I’ve been testing Crucial’s fixed firmware and so far things look good. The situation has improved enough to warrant another look at the C300, including its more affordable 128GB version. And that’s exactly what we’ll do today.
Like most SSD vendors, Crucial turned to a third party to supply a controller for its SSD - Marvell. Inside Marvell’s controller is a pair of ARM9 CPUs that work in parallel. One core handles SATA requests while the other handles NAND requests.
On the SATA side is a 6Gbps interface, a significant upgrade from the 3Gbps controllers found on all other SSDs we’ve reviewed. If you’ve followed our SSD coverage you’ll know that sequential read speed is one area where SSDs are traditionally limited by 3Gbps SATA. The C300 should fix that. To feed the controller Crucial uses ONFI 2.0 NAND with higher max transfer rates.
While the controller is made by Marvell, the firmware is entirely Crucial’s design. As we’ve seen in the past, as long as the controller’s CPU is fast enough the biggest influence on SSD performance is the architecture of the firmware.
Paired with the controller is an absolutely massive 256MB DRAM. The Marvell controller has a smaller cache than what Intel outfits its X25-M G2 with and rather than demand a more expensive controller with a larger cache, Crucial uses a very large external DRAM to store mapping tables and access history. Micron, Crucial’s parent company, being a DRAM manufacturer probably played a role in making that decision.
The RealSSD C300 is available in three capacity points, two of which I’ll be looking at today: 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. The Crucial controller has 8 channels to its NAND. Both the 128GB and 256GB versions have all 8 channels populated, however the 256GB drive physically has more die per NAND package which allows for greater parallelism and potentially higher performance.
Like the Intel and Indilinx drives, Crucial dedicates around 7% of the drive’s capacity to spare area. This non user-addressable NAND is used as a pool of clean blocks to replace dirty ones during normal use, and to replace any bad blocks.
|Cost per GB of NAND
|Cost per Usable GB
|Corsair Nova V128
|Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB
|Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB
|Intel X25-M G2 160GB
|Intel X25-M G2 80GB
|OCZ Vertex 2 120GB
|OCZ Vertex 2 240GB
High end SSDs have dropped in price considerably over the past couple of months. While 100GB SandForce drives were once at or above $400, these days you can get 120GB extended capacity versions for $330. In fact, the price of SandForce drives have dropped so much that there’s pretty much no reason to buy an Indilinx drive at this point. Note that there's no tangible performance difference between the extended capacity SandForce drives and the older versions with more spare area for any of the workloads we'll be talking about today.
Crucial’s C300 is priced competitively with the market, but it does command a price premium over the equivalent capacity SandForce drive. While OCZ will sell you 128GB of NAND on its Vertex 2 for $2.57/GB, Crucial asks for $2.883/GB on its C300.
|Intel Core i7 965 running at 3.2GHz (Turbo & EIST Disabled)
|Intel DX58SO (Intel X58)
|Intel X58 + Marvell SATA 6Gbps PCIe
|Intel 220.127.116.115 + Intel IMSM 8.9
|Qimonda DDR3-1333 4 x 1GB (7-7-7-20)
|eVGA GeForce GTX 285
|NVIDIA ForceWare 190.38 64-bit
|1920 x 1200
|Windows 7 x64