Price makes Imation SSDs a tough sell

Though resilient, dazzling performers, Imation's Pro 7000 solid-state drives can't compete with Western Digital's VelociRaptor SATA drive for overall value

Solid-state drives (SSDs) have been around for many years. Their high cost, however, has limited their deployment to special environments, such as the military, where their rugged, shock-resilient design, coupled with extremely fast performance, justifies the expense.

With SSDs emerging based on flash memory rather than RAM, the devices are becoming much more affordable. A sensible price gap still remains between SSDs and spinning drives, but increased interest in the technology from major vendors such as Seagate suggests that their still-limited popularity will improve over time.

One of the vendors who took an early dive in the SSD market was Imation, who early this year announced the Pro 7000, a family of SATA (Serial ATA) SSDs aimed at enterprise deployment.

Based on technology from MTRON, the Pro 7000 family includes 2.5-inch models with 16GB and 32GB of capacity and a 3.5-inch model with 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB of space. Suggested retail prices range from US$550 to $1,700 depending on capacity, though Imation recently introduced a less expensive model that offers slightly lower performance and knocks a couple hundred dollars off the price of larger-capacity models.

Imation claims ambitious performance number for the Pro 7000 drives, with sustained reads munching data at 120MBps and writes that are not far behind at 90MBps -- hence, my eagerness to review these drives.

After testing the 64GB and 16GB models, I am convinced that SSDs are the best drives that lots of money can buy, but their price and some quirky technical issues can put a damper on even the most optimistic deployment project.

Welcome to Jurassic Park To add some spice to my evaluation, I chose a non-SSD drive to use as reference and on which to run the same tests. The ideal candidate in my eyes was the Western Digital VelociRaptor WD3000, a 300GB SATA drive that is the fastest in its class, spinning at 10,000 rpm. The drive has a 2.5-inch form factor, but is riveted to a 3.5-inch adaptor, the IcePack, which also works as a heat sink.

More on their form factor: The two 3.5-inch drives in this bake-off essentially have the same perimeter, but the 64GB Pro 7000 has a noticeably thinner profile, at 0.625 inch versus the full inch of the VelociRaptor. The extra space should leave enough room for good airflow inside a case with multiple SSD drives.

After selecting a worthy trio of fast opponents for the test, my next step was to find a suitable test system that would not impede good performance. Unfortunately, none of the machines in my lab seemed to have enough I/O bandwidth to keep up with my fast drives. You can read more in my blog, but in short, before upgrading to an SSD drive, make sure that your server can deliver -- or you could be disappointed.

In the end, to ensure I had more control over the chip sets and software I'd be using, I decided to build my own machine. I had to go through several motherboards before finally finding one that could squeeze all the performance from my SSD drives. I finally got the expected performance using the ASUS M2N-E, which mounts the Nividia nForce 570 Ultra chip set and six 3Gbps SATA ports.

I added an AMD Athlon dual-core CPU and, to make sure that paging would not be a problem, 4GB of memory. I completed the prep work with a clean install of Windows XP plus SP2 and all the updates on a separate drive.

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