At the CES 2013 conference earlier this year Crucial announced the successor to its popular m4 series of SSDs. The new M500 series uses the new Marvell 88SS1987 controller and Micron 20nm MLC flash memory. We had to wait a few months, but now the new M500 is finally available. Hardware.Info tested the 480 GB model.
The past few years Crucial/Micron has been one of Marvell’s main customers for their SSD controllers. The Crucial m4 series and its OEM counterpart the Micron M400 sold really well, partly because Micron is one of the most aggressive parties when it comes to keeping prices low. So when Marvell released its new generation controller, it seemed obvious that Crucial would quickly develop a new SSD with the new controller. That took much longer, however. The new Marvell 88SS1987 came out, rather sneakily, in the OCZ Vertex 4 almost exactly a year ago. OCZ gave the controller a different name and only later admitted that it actually was the new Marvell chip. The new 88SS9187 is best known from the Plextor M5 Pro series that came out in August of last year.
There is a good reason why it took Crucial so long to develop its first SSD using the new Marvell controller, and why other manufacturers haven’t even announced using it in new products yet. Unlike Sandforce for example, Marvell ships the SSD controller without reference firmware. The 88SS9187 consists of a SATA interface, a flash interface, a DDR3 memory interface and various ARM cores that link everything together.
SSD manufacturers have to develop the algorithms for firmware and drivers themselves for everything including block management, wear leveling, garbage collection and so on. OCZ has a big team for this after the acquisition of Indilinx, Plextor has it in the shape of parent company PLDS (Philips Lite-On Digital Storage) and Micron also has a team of firmware developers. Since they have to start from scratch, not every manufacturer will be able to launch a product at the same time. It’s also why we’ve seen clear performance differences between the OCZ Vertex 4 and the Plextor M5 Pro, and now again with the Crucial M500.
Marvell’s approach is very different from SandForce, where 99% of the firmware is done by LSI SandForce itself so that SSD manufacturers can hit the ground running, so to say. It also means it’s much easier for companies to develop SandForce-based SSDs, and why Marvell SSDs are until now only made by manufacturers that have their own firmware developers.