Western Digital had unveiled the SanDisk Professional PRO-BLADE modular SSD ecosystem in mid-2022 to serve the needs of the professional market. The PRO-BLADE family comprises of three product lines - compact and sturdy NVMe drives (PRO-BLADE SSD Mags), a USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 (20 Gbps) enclosure for the mags (PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT), and a four-bay Thunderbolt enclosure (PRO-BLADE STATION) directly compatible with the mags. The mags are essentially M.2 2280 NVMe SSDs with a custom connector that directly exposes the internal PCIe Gen3 x4 interface, albeit with support for a higher number of mating cycles compared to the native M.2 2280 internal SSD one.

The PRO-BLADE ecosystem targets professionals in the content capture industry involved in multi-user / multi-site workflows. The typical use-case involves the SSD Mags in TRANSPORT enclosures on-site. Different team members can have their own TRANSPORT enclosures across which the SSD Mags may be hot-swapped. The central location with the PRO-BLADE STATION has the ability to ingest data from multiple SSD mags at speeds (Thunderbolt 3) higher than what is possible with the 20 Gbps TRANSPORT enclosures.

Western Digital sampled multiple PRO-BLADE SSD Mags and TRANSPORT enclosures for evaluation. This review takes a detailed look at the internals of the PRO-BLADE SSD Mag and the PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT enclosure, followed by a discussion of the results of putting the 2TB and 4TB combinations through our rigorous direct-attached storage performance evaluation routine. Prior to discussing the value proposition, we also look at the power consumption and thermal profile of the two configurations.

Introduction and Product Impressions

Portable storage drives have evolved rapidly over the last decade. There are multiple high-performance options in different form-factors for consumer and prosumer use-cases. The requirements for professionals involved in the content capture industry had typically been fulfilled using bulky storage arrays based on HDDs. Advancements in flash technology have disrupted this segment also.

Vendors designing bus-powered flash-based direct-attached storage devices need to keep performance consistency, power consumption, and pricing in mind. The ideal device would have high performance consistency (across extended stress periods, as well as workload types), low power consumption, and low cost. In practice, there are trade-offs involved, and the optimization of different aspects are done depending on the target market segment. The content-capture industry is sensitive to performance consistency. Pricing is not usually a major concern, and power inefficiency is usually tolerated as long as the performance is good.

Western Digital offers the PRO-BLADE SSD Mags for standalone purchase in 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB capacities. Users need either the PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT enclosure or PRO-BLADE STATION to enable a host system to use the storage capacity. Users can also purchase one of the four available PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT configurations (the 0TB empty enclosure, or the 1TB or 2TB or 4TB versions which come with a single PRO-BLADE SSD Mag of the appropriate capacity).

The PRO-BLADE SSD Mags have a gumstick form-factor. They are essentially a thermal cladding for a M.2 2280 NVMe SSD with a customized PCIe Gen3 x4 connector. This connector allows for a sung fit inside the TRANSPORT enclosure's receptacle. The TRANSPORT 2TB package pictured below includes a 50cm. USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 20 Gbps Type-C to Type-C cable along with a warranty guide and an user guide.

Both the SSD Mag and the TRANSPORT enclosure are held together by Torx screws that are simple to take apart. The gallery below presents a closer look at the enclosure and mag design, as well as their internals.

The screws inside the enclosure after taking apart the cladding are normal ones. Both segments of the TRANSPORT enclosure are solid metal with good thermal conduction paths (involving a thermal pad and a raised metal block on the case for the bridge chip).

The enclosure has a stylish and solid feel to it with the ridges on the side giving users additional traction. The recessed nature of the holding end of the SSD mag is also designed keeping the user experience with swapping mags across different enclosures and the PRO-BLADE STATION in mind.

Western Digital utilizes an ASMedia ASM2364 bridge chip under the thermal pad in the TRANSPORT enclosure's board.

The SSD mag incorporates the Western Digital WD_BLACK SN750E M.2 2280 Gen3 x4 NVMe SSD with plenty of thermal paste ensuring good contact with the metal sides. This SSD utilizes an in-house SanDisk controller along with 3D TLC NAND (BiCS 4 96L 3D TLC) and DRAM for the flash translation layer.

The combination of the WD_BLACK SN750E and the ASMedia ASM2364 has already been seen in the WD_BLACK P50 USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 PSSD. This combination supports S.M.A.R.T passthrough along with TRIM, as shown in the CrystalDiskInfo screenshot below.

S.M.A.R.T Passthrough - CrystalDiskInfo

The table below presents a comparative view of the specifications of the different direct-attached storage devices presented in this review.

Comparative Direct-Attached Storage Devices Configuration
Downstream Port PCIe 3.0 x4 PCIe 3.0 x4
Upstream Port PCIe 3.0 x4 (SSD Mag)
USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 Type-C (TRANSPORT)
PCIe 3.0 x4 (SSD Mag)
USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 Type-C (TRANSPORT)
Bridge Chip ASMedia ASM2364 (TRANSPORT) ASMedia ASM2364 (TRANSPORT)
Power Bus Powered Bus Powered
Use Case Compact portable SSD with separate TRANSPORT enclosure targeting multi-user / multi-location professional use-cases Compact portable SSD with separate TRANSPORT enclosure targeting multi-user / multi-location professional use-cases
Physical Dimensions 109.8 mm x 28 mm x 7.5 mm (SSD Mag)
130.4 mm x 71.5 mm x 16 mm (TRANSPORT)
109.8 mm x 28 mm x 7.5 mm (SSD Mag)
130.4 mm x 71.5 mm x 16 mm (TRANSPORT)
Weight 45 grams (SSD Mag)
165 grams (TRANSPORT)
45 grams (SSD Mag)
165 grams (TRANSPORT)
Cable 50 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 20Gbps Type-C to Type-C 50 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 20Gbps Type-C to Type-C
S.M.A.R.T Passthrough Yes Yes
UASP Support Yes Yes
TRIM Passthrough Yes Yes
Hardware Encryption No No
Evaluated Storage WD_BLACK SN750E (SanDisk 96L BiCS4 3D TLC) WD_BLACK SN750E (SanDisk 96L BiCS4 3D TLC)
Price USD 340 USD 220
Review Link SanDisk Professional PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT 4TB Review SanDisk Professional PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT 2TB Review

Prior to looking at the benchmark numbers, power consumption, and thermal solution effectiveness, a description of the testbed setup and evaluation methodology is provided.

Testbed Setup and Evaluation Methodology

Direct-attached storage devices (including thumb drives) are evaluated using the Quartz Canyon NUC (essentially, the Xeon / ECC version of the Ghost Canyon NUC) configured with 2x 16GB DDR4-2667 ECC SODIMMs and a PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD - the IM2P33E8 1TB from ADATA.

The most attractive aspect of the Quartz Canyon NUC is the presence of two PCIe slots (electrically, x16 and x4) for add-in cards. In the absence of a discrete GPU - for which there is no need in a DAS testbed - both slots are available. In fact, we also added a spare SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe SSD to the CPU direct-attached M.2 22110 slot in the baseboard in order to avoid DMI bottlenecks when evaluating Thunderbolt 3 devices. This still allows for two add-in cards operating at x8 (x16 electrical) and x4 (x4 electrical). Since the Quartz Canyon NUC doesn't have a native USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 port, Silverstone's SST-ECU06 add-in card was installed in the x4 slot. All non-Thunderbolt devices are tested using the Type-C port enabled by the SST-ECU06.

The specifications of the testbed are summarized in the table below:

The 2021 AnandTech DAS Testbed Configuration
System Intel Quartz Canyon NUC9vXQNX
CPU Intel Xeon E-2286M
Memory ADATA Industrial AD4B3200716G22
32 GB (2x 16GB)
DDR4-3200 ECC @ 22-22-22-52
OS Drive ADATA Industrial IM2P33E8 NVMe 1TB
Secondary Drive SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe 3D SSD 1TB
Add-on Card SilverStone Tek SST-ECU06 USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 Type-C Host
OS Windows 10 Enterprise x64 (21H1)
Thanks to ADATA, Intel, and SilverStone Tek for the build components

The testbed hardware is only one segment of the evaluation. Over the last few years, the typical direct-attached storage workloads for memory cards have also evolved. High bit-rate 4K videos at 60fps have become quite common, and 8K videos are starting to make an appearance. Game install sizes have also grown steadily even in portable game consoles, thanks to high resolution textures and artwork. Keeping these in mind, our evaluation scheme for portable SSDs and UFDs involves multiple workloads which are described in detail in the corresponding sections.

  • Synthetic workloads using CrystalDiskMark and ATTO
  • Real-world access traces using PCMark 10's storage benchmark
  • Custom robocopy workloads reflective of typical DAS usage
  • Sequential write stress test

In the next section, we have an overview of the performance of the two PRO-BLADE TRANSPORT configurations in these benchmarks. Prior to providing concluding remarks, we have some observations on the PSSD's power consumption numbers and thermal solution also.

Performance Benchmarks
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  • artifex - Thursday, March 7, 2024 - link

    You and I are not their target market. They're selling a plug and play ecosystem for businesses and pros. I'm sure they'd say they need to keep quality up and can't guarantee what someone else's hardware would do, but a truly open/commodity system wouldn't give them enough profit to keep supporting this niche.

    E1.S 9.5 form factor is bigger, and on a more practical note, looking at Newegg just now, Intel's DC P4511 4TB drive goes for $532.40 USD by itself* and has the same PCIe3x4 limit. And that's without any way to actually host it on a machine. Sure, if they based it on E1.S instead you could potentially buy an m.2 adapter to stick in it instead of having a native interface drive, but then you've thrown out the benefits of ease of use and swapping and not fiddling with stuff, that they're promising to business users.

    Go read the bit Ganesh said, about casual users and prosumers. As a consumer I'd love E1.S to be mainstream with competitive pricing, especially since it can actually do PCIe4x4 and from looking at a Solidigm data sheet it looks like you can get up to 8TB without having to go long or wide. But it's all still a lot more expensive than even this.

    *pricing could be wildly off because it's Newegg, so let me know if you find a decent retailer that stocks this form factor at a better price.
  • deil - Friday, March 8, 2024 - link

    I just say it, we had the same thinking with chargers, back in the 2000s.
    Was it fun to carry 7 chargers doing exact same thing, but with different plug, because manufacturer cannot guarantee other people hardware, blah blah blah?

    as far as I can tell, this has no merit, other than locking the hardware.
    if it would be more resilient to damage, offer anything related to connector or have any other advantage, then okay, but this is just pure "I want to have an apple-like ecosystem for myself" kind of thinking, and we should be harsh for that.
    Underneath is a STANDARD BUS POWERED device, using STANDARD protocols, with STANDARD pinout, so WHY?

    The only reason for non-standard connector that does nothing, is to lock the machine from easy external access, like govt buildings, if you leave normal usb out, it's easier to steal data.
    But I don't see this having any anti-tampering features, so saying that's the reason is half-assed.
    like simple access log, or device ID-ing.
  • Kamen Rider Blade - Saturday, March 9, 2024 - link

    The M.2 connector isn't designed for durability.

    - Connector Mating Cycle (Insert & Removal) designed Life Span
    - M.2___ = ___ 50 Cycles
    - SATA_ = 10,000 Cycles
    - Type-C = 10,000 Cycles (MINIMUM!)

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