The AntiBuzz: Solid State Drives

by Andrew Emmott on August 17, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,Hardware

The Buzz: Solid State Drives are great, the best thing since sliced bread, and we should all be using them.

The Anti-Buzz: Solid State Drives are great, the best thing since sliced bread, and we will all be using them in a few more years when they aren’t so expensive. Even right now they still have their place.

Why: Like Flatscreen Monitors, Solid State Drives are simply superior to the older alternatives and will eventually win out, but we are still in the price-gap bubble.

Today I am an unashamed advocate. I am of the belief that Solid State Drives(SSDs) are one of the best new technologies in personal computing. So my simple goal here is to give you the plain facts – and one of those facts is that, even now, SSDs are so much more expensive that they aren’t warranted in all situations.

Your old-fashioned Hard Drive:

First, understand how most normal Hard Disk Drives(HDDs) work. They are, in a sense, the last truly mechanical parts in personal computers. In a world where we measure processors by how many billions of instructions they process per second, HDDs are still measured in good old-fashioned, automobile-like revolutions per minute, and the fastest hard drives only go about 10,000 RPM. The cheap drive you got in your prefab computer probably only hits about 5000.

While the complex workings of your computer don’t require continuous access to the drive, it’s still fair to say that your computer is only as fast as its slowest part, and your HDD is the slowest part by several orders of magnitude.

More important, especially to business professionals…

More important, especially to business professionals, is the risk of mechanical failure. I could probably write an article on the ambiguity of the term “crash” but I think the only genuine More important, especially to business professionalscrashes are “hard drive crashes” wherein that crude mechanical technology inside your machine comes off its spindle and, quite literally, crashes against its casing, not unlike a WWII-era propeller plane. If you’ve been in the situation where your hard drive crashed and the local tech guy has told you it will cost some few hundred dollars to retrieve all your baby pictures, you can at least rest assured that he was not ripping you off. There is nothing insignificant about an HDD crash, nor the technology required to recover from it. Think of a CD cracked into splinters, and then what it might take for someone to reconstruct the information on it.

HDDs are the slowest part of your machine, and the most fragile. They are also very power hungry and consitute about a third of your energy consumption. And they store your personal data, so unlike everything else where a malfunction merely warrants replacement, hard drive failure can mean personal devastation.

Solid State Drives:

If you’ve used those convenient little USB flash sticks of memory, then you’ve used Solid State technology. It is the same thing, but much larger and configured to rest inside your computer instead of dangling off the end. The advantages might seem apparent after my indictment of typical hard drives, but let’s make sure we understand:

  • SSDs are about 2-4 times faster, depending on the situation.
  • SSDs use almost no power, cutting your energy consumption by about 30% by using one.
  • The only way to get an SSD to crash is to apply a sledgehammer.

The problem? Money. A rough estimation, in terms of cost-per-gigabyte, is that SSDs are about 30-40 times more expensive. This can and should make you balk. At point blank range this is enough to ignore SSDs entirely. However, as we all should know, life is a bit more complicated than simple artithmetic sometimes.

Admittedly, for your database, server, or any other machine that needs to store large quantities of data, SSD is probably not the best option right now – in fact HDD might survive in the file-server market for a good long while, perhaps indefinitely. When it comes to mass, professional storage, some technologies have a way of leveraging their benefits – old magnetic tape drives still persist in this market because for large, global companies that want to back-up all their data twice per day, it’s still the fastest and cheapest option. Your back-end, getting-backed-up-anyway server might yet continue to use large, cheap HDDs.

The opposite end of the spectrum are where SSDs really shine – your laptop. A laptop wants to take advantage of everything an SSD can offer. Given that you take your laptop everywhere, move it during operation, toss it on the couch, pack it up in a case, unpack it, roll it through airport security, drop it on your toe, fall asleep on top of it, et cetera, et cetera – your laptop is most susceptible to the dreaded hard drive crash. The extreme durability of an SSD belongs in a portable device.

The most prolific of gadgets out there, the iPod, was once notorious for breaking down, and it was owed to the old HDDs it housed. A new iPod uses SSD and is not liable to crash anytime this century. You can still buy the much cheaper iPod Classic, and you can risk losing your mp3s every time you tap the control wheel too hard.

Also, the power savings are enjoyed more in portable devices, which are often asked to run on battery power. A desktop might not care much for saving power, (Although, in large offices with many computers, those energy savings can equate to lower expenses), but your laptop might gain an extra hour before recharging.

And let’s not forget, after all this, that your computer will be running noticeably faster with an SSD. That’s also nice.

Middle Ground:

So SSDs are easy to recommend for laptops, and hard to recommend for back-end machines. What about your typical office workstation?

The durability is always nice, but a workstation hard drive is not responsible for maintaining your patient records, so a crash is merely inconvenient.

The energy savings do lower expenses, but you are likely to replace your machine before you realize a bonus on your electric bill. However, if your energy concerns aren’t about money, but about being environmentally friendly, then it is well worth stating that SSDs are probably the greenest piece of computer hardware money can buy.

The speed is the only immediately tangible bonus, and its a very nice one, but it can be hard to justify the cost increase. My diagnosis at this time is that the cost still has not come down enough to merit widespread adoption. In some small number of years everything but your file-server might be using SSD. For now it’s still an easy choice for anything portable.

The Packrat Issue:

Unlike many people my age, I am not filled with the urge to catalog every piece of media I might ever possibly want to consume, and download/rip/burn it all onto my personal computer. When I say SSDs are 30 times as expensive as HDDs, that’s only true if you were going to fill up that 1.5 Terrabyte drive with high definiton television shows. Me? I don’t mind being confined to a 128 GB drive. My laptop is for work, games, and a little music, and even the gaming habit doesn’t take up much space compared to all the media some people feel they need to put on their machines.

What I’m really getting at is that the price gap on SSDs can be a little subjective. Depending on your personal habits or your business needs, there can be diminishing returns on the lower cost-per-gigabyte you enjoy with HDDs. HDDs are cheap, but any more even the smallest ones might larger than you need. If you don’t need more than 160 GB, the cost difference might come down to only about 5 times as expensive, and while cost-per-gigabyte is a good metric, a very small SSD will reduce the total price you are paying for the extra speed, durability and energy efficiency.

Other Concerns:

While I’m being completely honest, there are a few technical issues with SSDs that warrant discussion.

The first is a geek concern, but a real one: SSDs manage memory with less granularity than old HDDs. Glossing over the technical details, SSDs can actually be slower in situations where they have to write a large amount of very small files. Small, in this case, means less than 256 kilobytes, which would encompass most of your written documents and some of your photos. If you have a large library of low resolution pictures, and you are copying them onto your computer, or unzipping them from an archive, then an SSD might not show much of a performance boost.

The other concern sounds more daunting, but is much less significant than it sounds. Put simply, over time, SSDs wear out. They won’t crash, but they will eventually transform into unwritable media. It sounds scary, but its not half as bad as it sounds.

The nature of the technology is that certain blocks of memory will become un-deletable after so may re-writes. The most important thing to remember here is that you will never lose data. All that will happen is that you will slowly lose the ability to delete data. The best way to think about it is that the drive is gradually transforming into a giant DVD. It will still have all your information, you just won’t be able to add any more to it.

So don’t panic. First, the odds of this happening to an average user before they would replace the machine anyway is pretty low. It is an eventuality, but not a likely one. Your lovely little USB Flash sticks have the same drawback and although they are inherently less used than a system drive, I invite anyone who has witnessed one wearing out to post the comment here. Second, when the drive does wear out, it will be years later, an equivalent replacement will be worlds cheaper, and all you have to do is just copy the drive over to a new one and keep on truckin’.

I’m lingering on this issue because I want to advise calm. Many of you may have never heard that SSDs can wear out, but for those of you that have, or might have later, I really want to stress that it is more or less a non-issue, especially when you consider that an HDD is more likely to crash before an SSD wears out.

Conclusion:

So, knowing just about everything you would need to know about Solid State Drives, my final advice should be obvious: SSDs are fantastic and will be more or less ubiquitous before too long. I would already urge you to use them in any portable computer, but the price difference still makes them hard to recommend for typical office workstations.

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