Intel successfully demos SSD overclocking, but will it come to market?

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Intel successfully managed to overclock an SSD by 10 percent, overall (the percentage increase of the overclock itself was more than 50 percent), at its Intel Developer Forum. However, it’s unclear whether the company will ever formally release the technology to market.

Intel representatives successfully dialed up the clock speed on the memory controller governing its SSDs from 400MHz to 625MHz at the end of an overclocking session at IDF this week. Intel has explicitly supported overclocking some of its high-end processors, a feat often accompanied by spectacular gouts of liquid nitrogen and the risk of melting down the processor itself.

OEMs and consumers alike already select SSDs for speed. Intel’s SSD 530 series reads and writes data sequentially at 540 Mbits and 480 Mbits/s, respectively. Random accesses of data, however, are where an SSD truly shines, with 41 million reads and 80 million writes per second. Performance hard drives like Western Digital’s Black line are rated at 1,100 Mbit/s for sequential data streaming, like video, but can’t keep up with SSDs on the random reads and writes that typify normal computing.

With SSDs and hard drives, however, the risk is losing a user’s data—all at once, catastrophically. Drive failures posed a real problem in the early days of SSDs, and damaged their reputation.

The flash memory within SSDs is rated at a number of read/write cycles, often 100,000 writes. But the memory controller distributes the data over the various flash cells to minimize stressing any one cell, known as wear leveling, and the SSD often contains additional “hidden” memory so that if a cell appears about to fail, the data it contains can be stored elsewhere on the drive.

Rob Crooke, general manager of Intel’s Non-Volatile Memory Solutions Group, said that customers and users alike are becoming comfortable with the failure rates of SSDs, which are less than 1 percent—because the likelihood of a drive failing is considered slim. Intel also offers a five-year warranty on its SSD drives. Intel launched the Intel SSD 1500 line of SSDs for business PCs at IDF, complete with 256-bit encryption options and support for its vPro technology.

Overclocking those drives, however, increases the risk of those individual cells failing. Intel has at least two “knobs” that it can allow users to turn to affect SSD performance—the speed of the memory controller, and the speed of the chips themselves, according to Pete Hazen, the marketing director for the group.

Overclocking the controller is considered les risky, if only because a failure in the memory controller theoretically allows the data to be recovered. Stressing the cells themselves may increase the likelihood of a crash.

On the other hand, “super gamers and overclockers are re-imaging before every test anyway,” Crooke noted. “They’re not worried about losing it [their data].”

Intel’s SSDs already contain tests similar to the SMART tests used by hard drive makers to detect the risk of failures before they happen, so there are some early-warning mechanisms in place, Hazen said. However, the question is what performance knobs Intel chooses to expose to the user; an unreleased version of Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) was shown off at the show and included an SSD overclocking tab.

Intel reportedly characterized the utility as experimental, and it’s unclear what the future holds for SSD overclocking in general. Would you risk it? Tell us in the comments below.

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