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Indilinx Barefoot 3 Controller and OCZ Vector Series

OCZ has been trying to be different from other SSD makers with its products. It is just easier to sell innovations, especially when such innovations have impressive specs. That’s why in March 2011 OCZ bought up Indilinx, the Korean developer of SSD controllers. And in early 2012 a new period in OCZ’s SSD history began as the company abandoned all third-party controllers in favor of its proprietary developments.

OCZ’s early Indilinx-based SSDs were marketed as Octane and Vertex 4 and featured Everest and Everest 2 controllers. The latter turned out to be not completely original, though. They were based on Marvell’s controllers while Indilinx only wrote new firmware for them. That was just a temporary solution, however. While the Octane and Vertex 4 were successfully selling, people from Indilinx were busy polishing off their very own Barefoot 3 controller which had no third-party roots. It was developed on the basis of the original Indilinx Barefoot which had been quite popular in its time, particularly in OCZ's Vertex drives of the year 2009.

Thus, the new OCZ Vector is based on the Barefoot 3 controller and depends on the latter’s highs and lows. Let’s take a closer look at the chip.

Like most other modern SSD controllers, the Indilinx Barefoot 3 features a dual-core design. One core is a standard ARM Cortex but the other, called OCZ Aragon, is a specialized 400 MHz 32-bit RISC processor designed specifically for SSDs so it can execute most SSD-specific instructions in just a single clock cycle. It is this component that is expected to ensure high performance of the Barefoot 3. Today’s SSD controllers usually have two ARM cores, but Indilinx engineers prefer a specialized solution adapted for specific applications.

The Barefoot 3 is similar to other controllers otherwise. It supports SATA 6 Gbit/s and uses eight-channel connection to flash memory via ONFI or Toggle Mode interface. One to four NAND devices can work on each controller channel using interleaving. DDR2 or DDR3 cache with a capacity up to 1 GB is employed to speed up reading and writing and support garbage collection.

Considering the controller’s capabilities, OCZ might have stuffed it with the best components available such as high-performance 19 nm Toggle NAND flash and large-capacity cache in order to get a chance of producing the world’s fastest SSD with SATA3 interface. However, this scenario doesn’t work for OCZ right now. The company needs an SSD that is as profitable as possible. In other words, the new SSD must have a competitive price and a low manufacturing cost, which excludes Toggle Mode flash and other luxuries.

So, the resulting Vector features good old MLC flash memory with ONFI interface manufactured on 25 nm tech process at IMFT facilities. This is an already old type of flash memory as Intel itself has been transitioning to 20 nm flash in its SSDs. On the other hand, this memory helps lower the manufacturing cost. Moreover, trying to cut the cost even further, OCZ buys flash memory as uncut semiconductor wafers and cuts and packages it at its own facilities now.

The outcome of these cost-cutting measures will show up in OCZ’s financial reports rather than in the Vector’s price tag, though. The new series is priced at $1.1 for a gigabyte of storage, which is average compared to other SSDs. However the special hardware of the Barefoot 3 controller endows the Vector with high specs comparable to the best of competing SSDs equipped with more expensive high-speed flash memory.

The next table compares the speed specs of prominent 240/256 GB SSDs available now:

As you can see, the Vector claims to be the fastest SSD, at least theoretically. Interestingly, the OCZ products are the only ones in the table to use 25 nm flash with ONFI interface whereas the others are equipped with Toggle Mode NAND flash. Despite that, OCZ confidently touts its new SSD as the leading solution available today.

Like the Vertex 4 series, the Vector is shipped with a 5-year warranty and OCZ emphasizes that reliability was a priority during the development stage. The Vector series underwent long testing across a large network of beta testers to guarantee absence of critical errors in the controller and firmware. As we learned, this time the company utilized a completely new approach to pre-launch product testing. According to OCZ Technology, the Vector hardware design was ready a few months ago. However, they decided not to rush the product launch and perform some additional testing in order to guarantee maximum quality of the launching product. A few thousand engineering samples were sent out to beta testers and industry experts, who continuously “tortured” the drives in various configurations, on various platforms (AMD and Intel), and in different operating systems. During the intensive testing period they didn’t uncover any critical errors, so today OCZ claim they are absolutely certain that the users also won’t have any issues with the new drive. They assured us that they would continue to run the same thorough testing for all upcoming Vector firmware versions, which should make OCZ Vector not only a very fast, but also a very reliable and stable product.

Here we have to add that the internal Barefoot 3 algorithms also contribute to the long life span of the flash-memory. It features low write amplification and effective flash memory management. All of this helps OCZ guarantee that, for example, the 256 GB Vector can last through the writing of up to 36 terabytes of data. In other words, 20 gigabytes daily throughout the entire 5-year warranty period. The new level of quality assurance is also indicated by the fact that each sample of the new SSD undergoes presale testing in a thermal chamber.

At the time of its announcement the Vector series includes three models with capacities of 128, 256 and 512 gigabytes. The Barefoot 3 controller doesn’t seem to support asymmetric flash memory configurations, so we don’t expect any models with in-between capacities. The available ones cover most users’ needs, though. As for a 64 GB model, it is theoretically possible but can hardly come out considering OCZ’s intention to have products with maximum profit rate. The specifications of the Vector series models are listed in the table.

The Vector series shows a typical performance/capacity correlation. The junior model with a capacity of 128 gigabytes is somewhat slower than its higher-capacity cousins, which is true for every other modern SSD series. It is due to the difference in the number of NAND devices on each controller channel.

Our sample of the Vector drive is the most popular capacity of 256 gigabytes. We’ll talk about it in the next section.

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