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Intel’s 34nm TRIM Firmware & SSD Toolbox

Date: October 27, 2009
Author(s): Rob Williams

Few people would argue that the solid-state drive is one of the best types of storage ever created, but there have been certain downsides up to this point. Aside from general pricing, eventual slowdowns caused some to think twice about a purchase. But, TRIM, along with Windows 7, is here, and the problem is (almost) a thing of the past.



Introduction

Along with the Windows 7 launch last week, came the long-awaited support for TRIM. As the OS natively supports the new storage command, if there’s an SSD installed and no other storage drivers are present, TRIM will work (if the SSD’s firmware supports it). It’s that simple. If you’ve been following the SSD landscape for a while, however, you’re likely already aware that TRIM isn’t exactly a surprise. The feature has been known about for a while, and companies such as OCZ and Super Talent, who offer many Indilinx-based drives, have made TRIM tools available to their customers for some time.

If this is the first you’ve heard of TRIM, allow me to explain. When SSDs first hit the marketplace, there was little wrong in terms of raw performance. In fact, what we saw was incredible. But, as long-term users have experienced, the drives had the ability to decrease in performance over time due to the lack of proper deletion of block contents. Unlike mechanical hard drives, contents in these blocks aren’t truly deleted, but are rather marked for deletion (as in, available for overwriting). This means, that when new data is to be written, the drive has to first remove the data from a given block or blocks, and then write the fresh data.

This seems inefficient, but that’s because it is. In fact, it seems rather ridiculous that SSDs ever came to market with such functionality in place, because it doesn’t take sheer brilliance to understand that as the drive fills up, it’s going to inevitably slow down. As a result of this, TRIM has reason to exist, and in all honestly, it has to exist. It’s essentially a proper garbage collector. You delete data… it deletes it, completely freeing up the blocks to be used later.

The reason that Windows 7 seems to be mentioned wherever TRIM is, is for good reason. It’s the first OS from Microsoft that officially supports it. You install the company’s latest and greatest to an SSD, and you have everything taken care of. Delete a file? TRIM is there. Format the drive? TRIM is there. It’s a feature that’s unbelievably important to the long-term performance of your SSD, and the perk is that you don’t have to worry about it at all with that particular OS.

Unfortunately, unlike such technologies as DirectX 11, TRIM support is not being added to Microsoft’s older Windows releases, including Vista. But for those who own a capable drive with TRIM software, the support can be added in a less-than-luxurious manner. As already mentioned, OCZ and Super Talent have offered manual TRIM tools for a while, which requires that the user manually run a CLI application to get the job done. In more extreme scenarios, you can use an application such as HDD Erase to secure erase the entire drive, which cleans up all the blocks on the drive, removes partitions, and even de-initializes it. Essentially, it becomes a truly brand-new SSD once again.

Intel’s Solid-State Drive Toolbox

While OCZ and Super Talent have offered TRIM support in some form or another for a while, Intel has been a little slow to the party, but it’s in some ways understandable as Intel doesn’t like to “rush” anything. The company isn’t looking to be the first out the door with such drivers/software, and it’s not surprising. Still, while it might have taken a while to get here, the company’s “SSD Toolbox” is a great little application that opens up TRIM support to G2 SSD owners. It’s GUI, not CLI, so that’s a huge plus.

There’s a caveat, and it’s huge. Pointing out support for the G2 drives wasn’t a mistake… G1 users, the earliest adopters, are left in the dark. I’m uncertain why Intel chooses to block these users out, especially since the drives were really, really expensive back then compared to today, but that’s business I guess. Whether or not you agree it’s unfair, it’s certainly unfortunate.

SSDs don’t support TRIM unless it’s in the firmware, so for G2 X25-M users, an update will need to be made to take advantage of the feature. At the same time, Intel decided to offer up a present to owners of the 160GB model, as the write speed has been boosted from 70MB/s to 100MB/s. Like the lack of TRIM for G1 drives, 80GB G2 owners lack this speed boost for whatever reason. Ugh.

Before we take a look at the updated performance, let’s first take a quick tour of the Intel SSD Toolbox software. After launching, you’ll see a list of drives installed, Intel and non-Intel (this software will only touch Intel’s own X25-M or X18-M G2, minus viewing the SMART information). The simple option’s list includes SSD Management Tools, which is where the TRIM tool can be found, Drive Information (hardcore information that will be important to few people), SMART attributes and “Fast” and “Full” diagnostic scans.

The most interesting sub-menu is of course the first one. Here, just a single tool is listed (it could be expanded in the future, although I don’t see the need). Simply click the drive in the above list, click “Run”, and after about 5 – 10 seconds, the entire process is done. That’s it… it’s super-fast. For those not using Windows 7, the tool allows scheduling of runs, up to once per day, which is per Intel’s recommendation. Because the process happens so fast, Intel stresses that running the tool each day will have no effect on the lifespan of the drive.

The only time anyone using Windows 7 would want to manually run this tool is in the case of deleting and then creating a fresh partition, as that process isn’t affected by the TRIM command. For everyone else, this tool is going to be hugely appreciated.

Of all the other available options, the SMART information is a neat one to check out. In particular, the value for “Host Writes” is interesting, as it tells you how much data has been written to the drive since the beginning. In our case, we settle in at 2.90TB. which means the entire drive has been written to over 17 times.

With the look of Intel’s Toolbox out of the way, let’s take a look at the updated performance, and also the effect that TRIM has on a dirtied drive.

Performance, Final Thoughts

As we haven’t published too much SSD content in the past, we have no basis for comparison at this point in time, so we’re going to keep the results simple. Our SSD drought isn’t going to last too much longer, however, as we’ve been steadily working on preparing a solid testing methodology over the course of the past few weeks, and hope to have our first proper evaluation within the next few. Our first test here consists of a simple HD Tach read and write before and after run, on a non-partitioned drive. Also, Windows Vista is being used, not 7, so we’re relying specifically on Intel’s tool to test with TRIM.

As expected, the average read speed kept put, but the write speed increased as promised by the firmware update. Note that despite the fact that Intel claimed 70MB/s on the sub-TRIM firmware, we actually achieved 84.7MB/s, so the difference afterwards at 106.5MB/s isn’t quite a 30MB/s boost, but it’s still higher than rated speeds. No complaints here. From an operations per second standpoint, the new firmware curiously caused a small drop in performance:

The drop is undoubtedly the result of the algorithm alteration to favor a higher write speed, but it’s a good one. The overall IOPS performance on Intel’s drive is impressive to begin with, and the greater write speed is going to be far more noticeable than the increase in IOPS (unless you are a -hardcore- multi-tasker). Combined together, the IOPS loss sums up to just under 6%, while the sequential write experiences a 43% boost. The end results are a huge win overall.

As far as the new firmware goes, the benefits that the 160GB G2 drive gain is great, but how about TRIM? To help test the overall effectiveness of TRIM, we first took our SSD and dirtied the heck out of it. No, not with literal dirt, but rather with a barrage of sequential and random writes, with the help of Iometer, an extremely robust storage-testing application that allows user-configurable usage patterns. Three of the most common patterns out there are File Server, Database and Workstation, and we test using those those here.

The goal of dirtying a drive is to effectively fill up every-single block multiple times over, to mimic a real SSD that’s been used over the course of a few months without TRIM ever being used. To pull this off, we had Iometer use 80GB of the SSD multiple times over (file was cleared and recreated three times, total random/sequential writes went on for over six hours). This test is a little over-the-top, but we wanted to dirty the drive to a rather serious point and see just what kind of difference TRIM could make.

Two other things to mention is that the 80GB’s that Iometer used was never removed, which means that during all testing, the drive was exactly half full. Because of this, performance in IOPS will effectively be near-half of a fresh drive, which will become apparent in a moment. Lastly, I’ve also included results of the test before it was dirtied, to make sure that TRIM brought us back to the original performance.

One thing I found out while attempting to dirty Intel’s drive is that it’s hard. I pummeled this thing to no end, and the performance drop never got to the point I had hoped to see. Overall, the “dirty” performance isn’t actually too bad, partly in thanks to Intel’s robust algorithms. Other drives would likely see even greater drops in overall performance, due to the difference in these algorithms.

But despite the apparent lack of a drop in performance, there was indeed a measurable drop, and as seen, after running the optimizer, we shot right back up to the performance we saw on the half-full drive.

Final Thoughts

So there. TRIM is officially here, and it’s about freaking time. Although Intel’s implementation of the command isn’t the first, it’s by far the easiest to use. It’s a few simple clicks, that’s it. Plus, it’s very, very fast. While a secure erase on the drive takes about 20 – 30 seconds on average, on our very dirtied drive, the entire process took 5 seconds flat. So as much as manually (or even scheduling a run) isn’t the ideal method, the fact that it pulls off what it needs to so fast is nice.

Although we focused on Intel’s solution to manual TRIM in this article, TRIM is TRIM, so if you have an SSD that supports the command, and of course the software to issue it, then you’re going to see similar results as we did here (performance aside, of course). Does this Toolbox make Intel’s drives more attractive of an option? Well, it can be argued that Intel’s drives are attractive no matter what, primarily due to the fantastic algorithm that lessens the need for TRIM compared to other drives, and also because the random write speeds are still unmatched compared to the competition.

What hurts Intel’s drives compared to the competition is the sequential write speed. Although the company owns the crown where random writes concerned, the sequential write is lacking in a big way. While other drives are offering 150MB/s+, Intel’s X25-M 160GB after the firmware hits just above 100MB/s in our tests. Intel isn’t clear about the reasoning behind the lower write speeds, but chances are good it has to do with the fact that the algorithm favors random writes.

What’s more important comes down to personal usage. For heavy multi-taskers, better random writes is important, for fairly obvious reasons. All of your running tasks will be looking to write bits of data to various parts of the drive, so if it’s faster while doing it, that means better multi-tasking performance. If you take a file, however, and copy it from one place to the next, or even from one X25-M to another, it will take far more time to do so when compared to the competition.

Taking random write out of the equation makes the choice of Intel’s drive a bit tougher, as long as we’re comparing drives that can utilize TRIM. TRIM fixes the major problem with SSDs… slowdown, so if the feature is working, that means your SSD is going to be running at optimum speeds all of the time. That makes budget drives from OCZ and Super Talent look extremely tempting. But any way you look at it, Intel’s drive is still hard to beat, especially if you don’t care about ultra-fast sequential writes.

What is a bit upsetting is the lack of an update for G1 owners. From a business perspective, it’s understandable why the original X25-M’s are not being touched with the TRIM update. Few companies update their products with new features long after they are introduced. It’s the same thing in the software world, where many companies won’t support their older software on newer operating systems (sure to be experienced by many with Windows 7). Still, it’s unfortunate, as the launch X25-M’s weren’t exactly the most affordable product around.

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