Monday, February 16, 2009

A Solid State Evolution

We're all familiar with solid state technology in one form or another. Whether it's the old school Nintendo games, or the compact flash card your digital SLR camera uses. Solid state technology has been around the block and then some. I almost think the evolution of solid state drives is kind of overdue, but hey we've come a long way from storing data on punch out cards and as with anything that can change the game - better late than never!

Since it's inception, the hard disk drive has long been the biggest bottleneck inside of the modern PC. A magnetic disk that spins around, on an average of 7,000 times per minute. That does seem kind of fast, you can even get 10,000RPM+ drives, there is no question, this technology that resembles a record player has been re-worked and is better than ever, but it's still physical. It's wear and tear, it's the audible crunch, it's a physical interaction and it's subject to physical failures more often than any other computer component.

Power. Speed. Size.

Solid state technology requires less power than hard drives. There are no physical devices, just memory chips and a controller. This is huge for battery life on laptops and less overall power consumption as SSDs become more common place in desktops and servers.

Speed! Yes I started off touting my cap at the bottleneck hard disk drives present in a modern PC, so what gives? Your standard SATA II disk drive will boast a 3.0Gb/s transfer rate, that translates in to 384MB/s. While there are many solid state drives to chose from for comparison, I'm going with the Intel X25-E Extreme. The X25-E has a read speed of 250MB/s and a write speed of 170MB/s.

I know what you're thinking, solid state drives are supposed to be faster, well they are! A hard drive can transfer data as fast as 384MB/s, but it has to find it first. A magnetic platter has to synch with a read/write head that finds the data and then transfers it. On an average a solid state disk can find the data 100x faster than a traditional hard disk. So while a hard disk will spend more time finding the data and transferring it, the solid state drive will already be at the data a lot sooner. As I write this, I'm sure engineers are hard at work putting the finishing touches on the next generation of solid state drives that will be able to eclipse the 384MB/s mark. (Though when they do, we'll need to replace the SATA II interface!) When you remove the physical restraints out of the equation, the possibilities are endless.

As with all new technology adaptation there are walls to overcome. The two biggest challenges facing solid state drives right now are size and price. Solid state drives aren't available in configurations over 256GB. While that is a lot of data, traditional hard disk drives are available in over 1TB setups. Whether you're a torrent freak or designing an enterprise level storage solution, for now, this is hard to overlook. The price per a GB of data varies depending upon the speed of the solid state drive, just as it does on hard disk drives. A fast 80GB Intel SSD will cost you 10x as more than a Western Digital 80GB HDD.

I do look forward to the days ahead of SSD evolution, no more platter warping, less power consumption, less noise and faster performance.

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