CPUs and GPUs always get the ticker-tape parades. Increases in processing power, however they may manifest, are always greeted with great fan-fare. We all like to see how much faster those high core-count CPUs crunch through tests like Cinebench, or how the latest pro graphics perform in tests like SPECview, but the unsung hero in system responsiveness is, and for quite a while now has been, the storage technology in a workstation. For years the mechanical hard drive ruled the consumer and professional PC market.
First introduced in 1956 as a way of permanently storing data for easy accessibility, the basic functionality has not changed; rapidly rotating disks or platters, coated by magnetic material, are paired with magnetic heads arranged on a moving actuator arm. These heads read and write data to the platter surfaces in a random-access manner, meaning that individual blocks of data can be stored or retrieved in any order rather than sequentially. While the basic functionality of these drives has largely unchanged in over a half century, the technology used to increase performance and storage size has evolved, all the while delivering smaller and more innovative form factors. From migrating from Parallel ATA (PATA) to Serial ATA (SATA), and introducing technologies like Native Command Queueing, onboard caching, faster on-board processing, to denser platters, increased spindle speeds, and even introducing exotic technologies like helium-filled drives and on-board NAND flash for caching, the mechanical hard drive still has inherent technological limitations that can be detrimental to your workflow.
In this article we’re going to be talking about various storage technologies and their limitations, as well as the technologies that have arisen to address them, including the move SSDs have made from SATA to PCI-E, as well as the migration from AHCI to NVMe. Confused? Don’t be, we’ve got you covered. Before we get started, let’s put some numbers on the board we can talk about, starting with some basic performance characteristics. We’ll discuss each one of them and how it affects you, then we’ll dive into benchmarks that show the right SSD solution can greatly increase workflow efficiency.
Don’t let the above chart overwhelm you. A few notes before we dissect these numbers: much of this data is supplied by the manufacturer, seek times for the Western Digital drive are estimated from reviews around the web, and were not available for the Samsung drive. The relevant information to begin discussing starts with the interface.
The first two drives, the WD 4TB mechanical and 480GB Intel SSD 730 are both SATA III, with a maximum theoretical ceiling of 600MB/s reads and writes. That 600MB/s ceiling is more than any mechanical drive can achieve, but has been completely saturated by SSDs for years. Given the overhead of the SATA bus, most SSDs top out a bit under that 600MB/s. Clearly, we needed a new interface. Which brings us to the Samsung SM951 and Intel SSD 750; these two drives interface directly to the PCI-Express bus, increasing maximum theoretical throughput from 600MB/s of SATA III all the way to 3.94GB/s of four lanes of PCI-E 3.0. Clearly we have some more headroom available to us, as even the Intel SSD 750 tops out at a 2.4GB/s theoretical read speed. The next number that should jump out at you is the IOPS, or Input/Output Operations Per Second. That number is heavily dependent on the seek times of a mechanical drive, which is embarrassingly low for even one of the fastest drives of its class, the Western Digital Black, while with SSDs it’s limited by the device’s internal controller and memory interface speeds. However, you may notice that the Intel SSD 750 has significantly higher IOPS than the Samsung SM951 (first revision) or Intel SSD 730. That’s because the Intel SSD 750 has migrated from the year 2004’s Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI) to the new Non-Volatile Memory Host Controller Interface (NVMe) which was designed specifically for accessing solid-state drivers through the PCI-Express bus. What’s the difference between these two?
Chart courtesy of Legit Reviews
All geek-speak aside, you can see that NVMe brings the same type of performance increases to the table that moving from mechanical to SSD based storage does. This allows the Intel SSD 750 to out-perform the competition in certain workloads. And that’s the big question – what workloads benefit from these high performance drives? We can all safely assume that all SSD products will outperform mechanical drives in booting up a system, opening programs, and any other bandwidth-intensive application. In fact, we only recommend mechanical drives for storing and archiving data, and not for active projects. The real question we want to answer is the difference between a SATA SSD with AHCI, and the new Intel SSD 750 with NVMe technology.
With that in mind, let’s dive into some benchmarks.
The above benchmarks show the Intel 530, Intel 730, and Intel 750 SSD drives, respectively. The Intel 530 and 730 represent the midrange and high-end traditional, SATA-connected and AHCI-controlled SSDs available in today’s market. As you can see, there are areas where the Intel 730 drive demonstrates dominance over the Intel 530 drive, but both are significantly eclipsed by the Intel 750 PCI-E NVMe SSD, and that is the key takeaway from this post. Regarding storage technology, a performance jump of this magnitude has not occurred since the introduction of SSDs many years ago. The Intel 750 PCI-E NVMe SSD dominates every category in performance and is a terrific choice for creative professionals looking to maximize workflow efficiency. The Intel 750 PCI-E NVMe SSD is perfect for any CAD or VFX application. From opening a program, the project or file, to rebuilds, scratch disks, multi-layer 4K jobs, or just overall responsiveness, you can't go wrong with this drive. The Intel 750 PCI-E NVMe SSD is available on the APEXX 2, APEXX 4, and APEXX 5 desktop workstations, while the Samsung SM951 M.2 PCI-E SSD is available on the GoBOXX MXL series.
Next month we'll be discussing real-world usage scenarios utilizing these drives in popular professional applications.