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Should I use an SSD Drive?

Solid State Drives represent a huge shift in storage. Today, most magnetic media drives are made by Western Digital or Seagate, who both have a very long history in manufacturing disk drives. SSD drives, by contrast, have largely come out of DRAM manufacturers. Names like Kingston and Samsung are prevalent. While these DRAM companies are known quantities in DRAM manufacture, are they ready for prime time with SSD? And why the shift to SSD in the first place?

To understand this we need to look at computer storage classifications. Most data storage can be grouped into the following:

1) Long term archival, never changes once created
2) Short term, non-archival, changing multiple times a day
3) Operating system or application temporary storage, changing minute to minute
4) Mechanically strong, high-stress environment data storage

With a typical Windows desktop hard drive, there are often all 3 storage types present. With a laptop or tablet, all 4 needs can be present.

Often in these categorizations a discussion of storage speed is brought in. However storage access speed is a huge red herring for the simple reason that nobody ever complained that their data storage was “too fast” That is, slower storage speeds are ONLY acceptable as part of an economic or other trade-off. Otherwise, if other variables are equal, anybody is going to choose the fastest storage available.

SSD was created primarily to answer issue #4. With tablets and laptops a spinning mechanical disk is more susceptible to damage if the device is dropped. Solid State has no moving parts and is thus more robust. Using SSD on a tablet, is a “no brainer”

Once SSD was introduced, it’s manufacturers began to really push the bonus of access speed. One of the favorite marketing ideas was a variation on how quickly an SSD system takes to boot up. This was pushed because it is known that computer technologists have a one-upmanship culture, and have and will spend lots of money for “bragging rights” New technologies like SSD drives need a huge amount of money for the R&D needed to refine the product, and the SSD drive manufacturers had no qualms about getting it from “fanboys” It came as no surprise to more experienced computer managers when the first several years of SSD drives had extremely short lifespans, often lasting less than a year. This was yet another example of “bleeding edge” technology.

Today, it may be possible we are out of the new product teething pains. There are a few people who are unbiased (NOT working for drive manufacturers) who are trying to establish reliability metrics, and have posted their results here:

http://techreport.com/review/24841/introducing-the-ssd-endurance-experiment
http://techreport.com/review/27436/the-ssd-endurance-experiment-two-freaking-petabytes

However the commentary attached shows that these test results are not the spectacular ones their authors believe. The authors make a number of assumptions on disk utilization and disk use among “ordinary users” that may simply be wishful thinking. Any part is going to have high reliability if you assume the user hardly ever uses it.

The traditional hard drive manufacturers, Western Digital and Seagate, also experimented with the early SSD drives but both have now released “hybrid” disk drives as their main SSD entry.

Western Digital has released “WD Black 2” These are a magnetic media drive combined with a solid state drive. The marketing is “the speed of SSD with the storage capacity of traditional drives”

Seagate has released the “SSHD Series” which like the Western Digital, is also a mag drive combined with an SSD drive.

Neither of the traditional drive makers is pushing only-SSD drives. The traditional DRAM makers like Samsung are pushing these drives, but so far their reduced storage capacity has mainly concentrated their use in laptops and mobile computers. But on the other hand, the traditional DRAM manufactures CANNOT sell hybrid drives – because they don’t have mag media technology, patent portfolios or institutional knowledge.

We strongly caution anyone looking at SSD at this time to hold off buying until the hybrid products from the traditional drive makers mature. Both Seagate and Western Digital are huge wealthy companies and neither is going to allow their cash cow storage market to just transition over to Kingston and Samsung. They both understand that mobile is the primary driver of SSD and that the tablet makers are emulating disk drives with onboard flash – and it is just a matter of time before laptop manufacturers do the same. The entire laptop market is in turmoil at this time with the entrance of Windows 10 and Android tablets and the traditional laptop may simply disappear in the next few years. There seems little point in buying a laptop outfitted with a SSD drive when you can buy a tablet and bluetooth keyboard that gives you the same thing for less money.

The traditional drive makers, Western Digital and Seagate, do not have DRAM manufacturing and likely will be in the position where they are going to be required to purchase flash ram for their disk drives for the foreseeable future. The DRAM manufacturers do not have the experience or branding or trust for the major server storage market and likely can make as much profit selling flash ram to WDC and Seagate as they make selling their own SSD disk drives. It is therefore likely that the DRAM makers will not venture much beyond the 2.5″ form factor laptop market for SSD drives and will certainly be locked out of the larger storage magnetic media market for many years.