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Written by Olin Coles   
Monday, 06 February 2012
Table of Contents: Page Index
Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive
Closer Look: Intel SSD 520 Series
Features and Specifications
SSD Testing Methodology
AS-SSD Benchmark
ATTO Disk Benchmark
CrystalDiskMark 3.0 Tests
Iometer IOPS Performance
EVEREST Disk Benchmark
PCMark Vantage HDD Tests
Intel SSD 520 Series Conclusion

Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive Review

Manufacturer: Intel Corporation
Product Name: Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive
Model Number: SSDSC2CW240A3 (240GB)
MSRP: 60GB $149, 120GB $229, 180GB $369, 240GB $509, 480GB $999

Full Disclosure: The product sample used in this article has been provided by Intel.

For the past several years, consumers searching through the available selection of Solid State Drive (SSD) storage devices have noticed that capacity continues to favor the hard disk drive counterpart. While it could be a few more years before any SSD matches terabyte capacity with the HDD, Intel's NAND Flash produced at 20nm is closing that gap in terms of price and storage space. In this article, Benchmark Reviews tests the Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State Drive against the leading competition to see if it's capable of delivering SATA 6 Gb/s speeds up to 550 MB/s and 80,000 maximum 4K random write IOPS.

In our previous tests with the SATA 3GB/s Intel SSD 320, there was evidence of untapped potential resting within the 25nm NAND Flash components. Utilizing a unique hardware and firmware architecture, the Intel Solid-State Drive 520 Series implements on-board data compression, a feature that helps increase performance and endurance by automatically compressing data sent to the SSD. Cherryville's hardware-level compression results in data that requires less storage space, and potentially grows the capacity of the Intel SSD 520.

Compressing data has other advantages, too. Intel's SSD 520 Series provides an AES 256-bit hardware-based mechanism for encryption and decryption of user data. Utilizing a 256-bit encryption key, AES encryption helps protect user data when combined with an ATA drive password. That data is further protected with end-to-end data protection by using cyclic redundancy check (CRC), parity, and error correction code (ECC) checks in the data path from the host interface to the NAND, and back.

Intel-SSD-520-Series-Top.jpg

Solid State vs Hard Disk

Despite decades of design improvements, the hard disk drive (HDD) is still the slowest component of any personal computer system. Consider that modern desktop processors have a 1 ns response time (nanosecond = one billionth of one second), while system memory responds between 30-90 ns. Traditional hard drive technology utilizes magnetic spinning media, and even the fastest spinning mechanical storage products still exhibit a 9,000,000 ns / 9 ms initial response time (millisecond = one thousandth of one second). In more relevant terms, the processor receives the command and must then wait for system memory to fetch related data from the storage drive. This is why any computer system is only as fast as the slowest component in the data chain; usually the hard drive.

In a perfect world all of the components operate at the same speed. Until that day comes, the real-world goal for achieving optimal performance is for system memory to operate as quickly as the central processor and then for the storage drive to operate as fast as memory. With present-day technology this is an impossible task, so enthusiasts try to close the speed gaps between components as much as possible. Although system memory is up to 90x (9000%) slower than most processors, consider then that the hard drive is an added 1000x (100,000%) slower than that same memory. Essentially, these three components are as different in speed as walking is to driving and flying.

Solid State Drive technology bridges the largest gap in these response times. The difference a SSD makes to operational response times and program speeds is dramatic, and takes the storage drive from a slow 'walking' speed to a much faster 'driving' speed. Solid State Drive technology improves initial response times by more than 450x (45,000%) for applications and Operating System software, when compared to their mechanical HDD counterparts. The biggest mistake PC hardware enthusiasts make with regard to SSD technology is grading them based on bandwidth speed. File transfer speeds are important, but only so long as the operational IOPS performance can sustain that bandwidth under load.

Bandwidth Speed vs Operational Performance

As we've explained in our SSD Benchmark Tests: SATA IDE vs AHCI Mode guide, Solid State Drive performance revolves around two dynamics: bandwidth speed (MB/s) and operational performance (IOPS). These two metrics work together, but one is more important than the other. Consider this analogy: bandwidth determines how much cargo a ship can transport in one voyage, and operational IOPS performance is how fast the ship moves. By understanding this and applying it to SSD storage, there is a clear importance set on each variable depending on the task at hand.

For casual users, especially those with laptop or desktop computers that have been upgraded to use an SSD, the naturally quick response time is enough to automatically improve the user experience. Bandwidth speed is important, but only to the extent that operational performance meets the minimum needs of the system. If an SSD has a very high bandwidth speed but a low operational performance, it will take longer to load applications and boot the computer into Windows than if the SSD offered a higher IOPS performance.



 

Comments 

 
# "As of 06 February 201, the Intel SSD 520 Series launches..."Dan 2012-02-06 08:35
Wow, so long ago. The age when Caracalla ruled. Did they have SSDs back then?
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# RE: "As of 06 February 201, the Intel SSD 520 Series launches..."Olin Coles 2012-02-06 08:41
There's always got to be at least one person... the typo's been fixed smartass. :)
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# LOL!realneil 2012-02-06 10:42
Good review Olin. Now I want one of these too. As a matter of fact, it's on the top of the list.
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# RE: LOL!Olin Coles 2012-02-06 10:45
Thanks! This is a VERY FAST drive that costs the same as SandForce SSDs, and with a five year Intel warranty you really can't go wrong.
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# RE: Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State DriveJerry Record 2012-02-06 15:42
Thanks for the review. I have been looking at these for some time, but still straddling the fence. My concerns are longevity of the drive. The Intel 520 & 320 series have the best reviews with the fewest number of DOA's & BSOD's with in a short time period after installation. I also understand Intel has a 5 yr waranty. But, when it holds you OS and all you software and dies. It is a hassle. Just thought I would check and see if you had any insight into the real world life expectancy of the SSD today.
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# RE: Intel SSD 520 Series Solid State DriveEndocine 2012-02-07 02:38
Unfortunately your question can not be easily answered. But my anecdotal observation from running intel SSD's for a couple years now, in laptops and desktops - I have never seen a failure personally. I wouldn't rely on SSDs for long term data storage, and regardless of their failure rate or life expectancy, always do data backups, if you do not then you are asking for a hassle. Don't put anything critical on a consumer SSD and always do backups.

While these drives are appreciably more expensive than equally performing models from other companies, one would hope that a lot more testing and quality controls went into making them, and there's no way to test for reliability between brands in a review like this, you need to run tests for a long period of time using large numbers of drives and the expense and time of such an undertaking would be beyond the capabilities of a review site.
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# AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 07:36
I currently use a 'standard' hard drive. I keep all data on a partition other than the OS partition. I use TrueCrypt to encrypt the data partition.
I am concerned with the 520's reliance on the bios password for encryption. Isn't the bios password fairly easy to hack? If my laptop 'walks off' is my data really 100% secure or is it readily available to anyone who can garner the bios password?
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# RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 07:42
Hello Bill:
Although I do not use it personally, it is my understanding that TrueCrypt works perfectly on an SSD.
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# RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 07:48
Sorry if I wasn't clear....I'm interested in utilizing the 520's native encryption, not TrueCrypt. My understanding is that using a software encryption program will cause additional performance and wear issues. My concern is with the 520's native, hardware encryption reliance on the bios password.
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# RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 07:57
Because SSDs feature automatic data encryption from the moment they initialize, there's an inherit problem giving users password-controlled access to data. There are several articles around the web (search: SandForce SSD Encryption Demystified) that explain how this happens, but in summary it's a problem that has existed as long as self-encrypting drives. Intel offers an SSD toolkit to work with the encryption key on their drives: downloadcenter.intel.com/Detail_Desc.aspx?agr=Y&DwnldID=18455
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 08:51
Olin, many thanks for the response(s). Not sure I still have a definitive answer. I'm not a security expert, nor do I want to be one. I'm simply someone who has enough computer smarts (barely) to realize the need for encryption and be able to install and utilize TrueCrypt. I am hoping that the Intel 520 eliminates the need for me to be concerned about encryption. I don't require DOD level security. I store my financial info on my laptop. If it is stolen, is my data at risk by anyone who can google for "bios password recovery"? Or would it take some very high tech hacking to get access to my SSD data? Thanks for your patience.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 09:01
The short answer is to use a third party software or tool, because if your drive is stolen it can be plugged into any other computer and read.
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionBill McGovern 2012-04-23 09:30
Thanks again for your time and patience. I've been doing some web searching in addition to the links / strings you suggested. I ran across #dfarq.homeip.net/2011/05/more-on-the-new-intel-320-ssd/ which talks about Intel 320 SSD encryption. If the same applies to the 520, their opinion is that the encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate use. Does their explanation negate the ability to bypass security by "plugging it into any other computer and read", or using the widely available bios password obtaining schemes?
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# RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: AES 256-bit EncryptionOlin Coles 2012-04-23 10:01
I don't share their opinion, and believe a drive should have more than a BIOS password to protect it.
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# Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBjoern 2012-05-22 02:37
Sorry, but you mix up BIOS password protection and the ATA HD security command. This seems to be a very common mistake since you can read it all over the net.

I think the origin for this mixup is comming from the first sandforce controlled SSDs - they encrypted the data on the memory chips, but users had no way to enter a password since ATA HD security was not supported. back then it was no security enhancement at all. encryption was just used as a cheap way to randomly scatter data over the NAND as a wear leveling tool.

Setting up a ATA HD password with a selfencrypting ssd like the intel 520 series will securly encrypt all data and you wont be able to read or write to the drive without the password. the drive cannot be pluged into another computer and be accessed there. It will show up as a locked drive until you enter the correct ATA master- or user password. you wont even be able to secure erase the drive without a password - better don't loose it or you have to dump your drive. However, your mainburd has to support ATA HD security. That is a still little hard to find...

this is also not what the article you reffere to (SandForce SSD Encryption - Demystified) is stating. the articel you reffered to was mainly questioning the security of such a "black box" solution in spite of an open source solution like truecrypt. The article is also quite old.

to get a clearer view of how it actually works see the document:
##hgst.com/tech/techlib.nsf/techdocs/F08FCD6C41A7A3FF8625735400620E6A/$file/HowToGuide_BulkDataE ncryption_final.pdf

It seems to be just a logical step to use ondisk encryption whenever possible with a SSD since SSDs loose up to 80% performance if you use truecrypt.

@Bill: Yes, ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate use.

Best
Bjoern
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# RE: Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBill McGovern 2012-05-22 09:51
Bjoern, thanks so much for your time.

From your comments, my understanding is that if my motherboard supports ATA Security, I can set a password that is unrelated to the BiOS password and is not stored in the BIOS. Correct?

One other question, if my motherboard does NOT support ATA Security, can the Intel toolkit be used to set the SSD ATA password? Do I then continue to use the toolkit to provide the password and enable access?
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# RE: RE: Missunderstanding - ATA HD encryption is sufficient for personal or corporate useBjoern 2012-05-22 10:09
Dear Bill,

1.) Yes. The PW will be hashed and the hash will be saved in the drive. the PW can then be used to decrypted the key used for the encryption of the data on the drive itself. You can also use the drive in another computer supporting ATA security - at least if it is the same mainboard and therefore BIOS implementation of ATA security.

2.) If your BIOS does not support ATA security there is no way to use a password protected disk. the disk would be locked - without a supporting BIOS you cannot enter the password. Most systems would not even boot with a locked drive on any SATA channel. that is also the reason why you cannot set the password using the intel toolkit. imagin you would set a password in windows and then be unable to access your system anymore, because your bios actualy does not support it.

Therefore, the entire handling of the password is quite uncomfortable and you have a risk of loosing your hardware. allways remember - if you loose the password you loose not only the data but also the drive itself. It would be bricked forever.
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