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June 25, 2010

Solid State Drives (SSDs)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul @ 8:55 am

The first computer I used was a Texas Instruments TI99/4A.  It was a keyboard with a brain that plugged into our little black and white TV and you plugged cartridges into it to do different tasks.  These cartridges were “Solid State” devices, meaning they had computer memory chips in them used to hold their data.  This was a very fast and stable way of storing data, however as computer programs grew in size it became too expensive to store everything this way.  So entered the floppy disk drive (and the cassette drive) and eventually the hard drive into the consumer PC marketplace.  This is all still in the early to mid-eighties.  Fast forward a few decades and hard drives are still where it’s at for data storage.  There is one in almost every new PC purchased. I say almost because there is a new contender on the block looking to get into your computer: the Solid State Drive.

Hard drives are amazing technology for storing large amounts of data inexpensively, but they are not the most efficient medium for getting to your data as quickly as you can.  They use a rigid platter spinning anywhere from 4,800 to 15,000 times per minute and a tiny head that slides just above the platter to read and write data by checking and changing the magnetic polarity of tiny specs of magnetic dust (really, I find it truly amazing that the majority of the planets’ digital data is stored as microscopic norths and souths on magnetic dust stuck to spinning plates).  Every time you access a file the computer has to tell the hard drive what it is looking  for.  Then the hard drive has to move the little read/write head on an arm out over the platter to the part where the data it is looking for will be.  Once there it waits for the data it needs to rotate under it so it can read it.  This is called “seek time” and it only takes about 10-20 milliseconds.  This may not seem like much but it has to be done for every file accessed, and when you are accessing a lot of files (when booting your computer for instance) it adds up–a LOT.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because what makes SSDs so interesting is that there are no moving parts, only memory chips.  So everything moves at the speed of light (or nearly so, you physics majors, etc. please cut me some slack ;).  “Seek times” on an SSD are under 0.1 ms. Where this really becomes apparent from a specification standpoint is what are called IOPS or Input/output Operations Per Second.  Typical hard drives are anywhere from 90 to 180 IOPS, which means they can’t read any more than about 90 to 180 files per second. If your computer has to read or check a few thousand files on boot, well, you can see where this is going.  It also shows why it takes ages for things like virus scans that have to check each of the several hundred thousand to several million files on your computer.

SSDs by comparison start at around 5000 to 8000 write IOPS and 35000 read IOPS, amazing!

What this means to you and me is that a computer (for instance the PC I am writing this on) boots Windows 7 off a hard disk in just under 2 minutes, but it boots the exact same OS (cloned from the hard disk to a SSD) and logs in and launches Outlook in under 20 seconds.  On my Mac laptop where my Mail program has ~36,000 mail items and takes about 3 minutes to open (it likes to compare the mail on my Mac with the server to make sure they are in sync), once I cloned to a SSD this same process took about 1 second.  Yes, you read that right from 180 seconds to one second.

Now, for all of you who are sitting there saying, “OK, so why doesn’t everyone have SSDs now?”, in a word: price.  SSDs are still much more expensive per gigabyte than hard disks and you can’t even get them in some of the larger sizes that you can easily get hard disks in.  That said, if your storage needs are small and speed is of the essence, there may be an SSD in your future.  Say you already store most of you files on a server at work, or you keep all of your pictures and movies on an external drive anyway and a 120GB drive is fine for your needs, then a SSD might be perfect for you.  Maybe you travel with your laptop a lot (the other benefit of SSDs is lower power consumption) and you want your laptop to boot fast, let you work quickly and then shut back down fast, if so a SSD is definitely a great idea.  Or it could just be a cost effective way to breathe new life into a higher end computer that has a few years on it (my aging MacBook is like a brand new laptop with a SSD in it).

So, if you think a SSD might be right for you, give us a call or send us an e-mail, we will be happy to let you know what your options are.

1 Comment

  1. Paul,
    Thank you so much for this blog post. I had no idea these things existed. It is so great to log onto your fabulous blog and have this speedy new tool revealed.
    I can picture a number of laptops and older slower computers getting a new lease on life thanks to this new technology.
    Calla Gold

    Comment by Calla Gold — July 3, 2010 @ 9:17 am

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