Quick Tip – Solid State Drives (SSD) are better
Posted by Timothy Platt on Mar 2, 2017
Solid State Drives (SSD) – Faster, Lighter, and More Reliable
Here at Virtual Operations, Orlando’s best Managed IT Services provider, we are often asked to make recommendations for new computer purchases. One piece of advice we consistently give: for mass storage, order a Solid State Drive (SSD). In this article, we’ll discuss why this technology is better than the legacy option – spinning hard disks.
NOTE: This explanation is targeted to consumer and business users. We won’t overload you with the latest tech details – just the core concepts you need to know to make a good decision.
First, a little history…the hard disk
Historically, the primary form of mass storage in a computer has been the hard disk or hard drive. This device consists of several magnetic platters (the “disk” of “hard disk”) that rotate on a spindle. The information stored on the device is magnetically coded onto the platters and is accessed by a “read head”. This is a sensor, on an armature that can be moved across the platter to access a specific location for data. Close your eyes and imagine a record player – very similar layout. The vinyl record is the platter and the needle is the read head. The most striking difference is that in the hard disk the “needle” can be moved to any location on the “record”, in any order desired. The other significant difference is any modern hard drive will have 4 or 5 or more platters, all stacked on top of each other, with a read head for each. Imagine 5 record players piled up vertically. Also, the “read head” is also a “write head”, meaning it can be used to read or write data from the platter. So far so good. Let’s talk about the limitations of this technology.
Hard disks have several moving parts…and those limit ultimate performance
Continuing with our record player example, the platter spins and the read head must be moved. This is physical movement, that can occur only at some set speed. Hard disks for desktops are typically available in two platter speeds: 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM. As you might imagine 7200 revolutions per minute offers higher performance, the platter is spinning faster, so the data can be read faster. Secondly, the read head needs to move in a “random” fashion – meaning it might have to read data from the outer edge of the platter, and then rapidly move to the inner edge of the platter. If there’s less physical distance to move, the read of data will happen faster. Hard disk performance is usually better if the disks (platters) are smaller, because there is less distance for the read head to move. This can also be accomplished by storing the data more densely, meaning less platter spin must occur to read the same set of data. This is all well and good, and the technology for hard disks gets better every year – smaller and with more capacity. But a few considerations…
Hard disks are heavy and those moving parts are slow and prone to failures
Everyone is familiar with the dreaded “hard drive crash”. In the simplest terms this can be a mechanical failure where the read head “crashes” into the platter and damages physically the underlying magnetic recording. This can render the data unusable. Why would this happen? If you’ve ever dropped a laptop with a hard disk this may have happened to you. Other failures include failing to spin and other such problems. Secondly, if you’ve ever picked up a hard disk, they are very dense, almost to a surprising degree. Lastly, it takes a good deal of power to keep that disk spinning continuously at those speeds. Try to spin them faster, and that’s even more power required.
How can we improve upon this?
Let’s look at how SSDs improve upon the fundamental problems of hard disks:
- No moving parts – Firstly, we’ve got to get rid of all those moving parts. They aren’t robust – they are prone to shock, temperature, and physical damage. Having mass, they have momentum and they take a lot of power to move. Lastly, they are slow – moving parts take time to move. So, our ideal solution will have no moving parts, but we still need to store information somehow. So, we’ll use “flash” memory instead – think of the thumb drive we all know and love, but on a much grander scale. Flash memory is an integrated circuit (“chip”) solution that lets us store mass amounts of data permanently, without any of the drawbacks of the hard disk.
- Faster – The speed at which flash memory operates at is astounding. In fact, it’s so much faster than traditional hard disks, that new interfaces have had to be designed to get that data to the CPU as fast as possible. Traditional hard disks use the SATA interface, SSDs are moving into PCIe based interfaces such as NVMe. That’s why the device shown here looks so radically different from a hard disk.
- Smaller – Once we’ve rid ourselves of the moving parts, we can make things smaller, and significantly so. Shown in the image accompanying this section is a Samsung SSD. It’s about the size of a RAM stick – significantly smaller than a 3.5″ or 2.5″ hard drive.
- Lighter – If it’s smaller and simpler, it’s going to be lighter, case closed.
- Less power draw – Less power is needed, which means better battery life on mobile devices such as laptops, and less power draw on desktops. Better battery life and a lower electric bill are always a good thing.
- Quiet – Being solid state, with no moving parts, it’s going to be silent. No more hard drive clicking. A small bonus, for sure.
SSDs leverage all those factors, to provide a solution far better than the traditional hard disk, especially for mobile devices such as notebooks and laptops. But there are some drawbacks. Let’s discuss those next.
The drawbacks of SSD…
Firstly, we should state that the state of the art in SSD is improving rapidly every day. Most of these drawbacks were significant “show stoppers” a short few years ago, but are less of a concern every day. With that caveat out of the way:
- Expensive – This new technology is more complicated and less well known – it takes more in R&D time and relies on more high precision components. Priced per Gigabyte of storage, SSDs are always more expensive than hard disk. The flip side of this is you get more robust and higher performance. Is the extra expense worth the gain of not waiting for the computer to boot and run your programs? That’s a decision you’ll need to make.
- Limited capacities – In the year 2017, hard disks are available in 8 Terabyte and 10 Terabyte sizes. There is no single SSD available in that size, and if there was, you couldn’t afford it. Is this an issue? Less and less by the day. SSDs of “reasonable” size such as 1 Terabyte are now quite affordable. And with the awesome performance they provide, they are usually worth the extra expense from a performance standpoint. Lastly, in many scenarios, a secondary hard disk can be used to provide for mass storage. A desktop PC with an SSD for the boot and OS drive will offer great performance, but can have a “D:” drive of a 4 Terabyte hard disk for major storage of videos, music, etc.
- Failure modes – Failure modes for SSD are somewhat dramatic. When they fail, they tend to fail big – meaning no chance of getting your data back. Most hard disks will fail in a gradual fashion – more noise, more errors, more slowness – give you a few hints that disaster is about to strike. Secondly, it’s often possible to still retrieve data off a failing or failed hard drive. Your options with SSD are very limited and few. In fact, we recommend you have a current backup of all data on SSDs at all times.
To sum things up, the dramatic differences with SSDs come with some extra considerations. But the tech is approving rapidly every day, and in most scenarios SSD is a solid choice. We hope this article has been useful to you. If we can help with your next computer selection, please reach out to us. By the way, these sorts of simple and in-depth explanations are all part of the service we offer continuously to our clients. We pride ourselves on simple, understandable explanations.
IT Support by Virtual Operations
Virtual Operations provides IT support for small businesses in the Orlando and Central Florida area. Our managed IT services offering provides the expertise and quality care your small business needs. Please contact us today to find out how we can help with your computer support and network support needs.
Quick Tip – In this weekly series of articles, we’ll provide a quick, simple overview of an IT related topic – relating complex topics in easy to understand terms. This particular topic is part of our computer repair series, which includes what to do if you’ve got a slow computer, among other topics.