My biggest pet peeve about using a PC is waiting on the hard drive. Even with defragmentation, boot optimization, smart controllers, algorithms, and caches, they’re irritatingly slow — especially when booting. They’re even more irritating in a laptop because they’re simply not as fast as their desktop counterparts.
I’ve pulled out all the stops in the past — tweaking Windows XP, buying denser hard drives (faster in desktop applications), faster hard drives (Western Digital Raptor), different technology (15,000 RPM SCSI drives in a mirrored configuration using a Mylex RAID controller with 128 MB of cache). None of these provided the results I was looking for.
I don’t program file systems, firmware, or operating systems — but I never understood why the system was stupid enough to cause the hard drive heads to scatter across the hard drive reading a few KB at a time before moving on to service the request of another application’s request — especially during boot. This causes the workload to last orders of magnitude longer than if all of the data an application needed in order to bootstrap itself to life occurred in one sequential read. Of course, this is very hard given the number of DLLs needed to load today’s applications and reordering those DLLs wouldn’t be the right order for another application. Yup, this starts to get complicated.
Enter the Solid State Drive. Seek times don’t really matter. Problem solved, right? It depends — depends on your workload and how much money you’re willing to spend 🙂 SSD technology is still rapidly developing. Obviously raw speed is increasing but more importantly, the interfaces between the operating system and the SSD (which includes OS drivers, motherboard chipsets and the SATA controllers) are still designed for old platter technology. They make assumptions and optimizations that are counterproductive to SSD technology. Fortunately advances are being made in the controllers on the SSD drives themselves to compensate. Additionally, Windows 7 has some SSD-specific provisions.
SSDs can be divided into two basic categories — SLC (Single Level Cell) and MLC (Multi Level Cell). The short version of the difference is that MLC’s write times are slower and generally suffer from “stuttering” during lots of small write operations — something that happens frequently if it’s hosting your operating system. There are numerous tweaks that can diminish or remove this problem, however.
I’ve been heavily watching and researching the SSD market for several months now, and was excited to see all the reviews on Intel’s X25-E SLC drive. However, it was only 32 GB at the time, and was $750. The price rapidly dropped (currently $420), but still gave me pause because I knew I’d end up hating having to worry about the free space on my SSD all the time. Last month, the 64 GB version came out ($850). I broke down and purchased it to replace the 200 GB 7200 RPM 2.5″ drive in my Lenovo T60p.
While my T60p can’t nearly make full use of the SSD because it’s SATA I (1.5 Gbps) and has an older chipset (Intel ICH7-based), I can tell you it’s made a vast difference in performance. It’s actually moved the bottleneck back to the CPU. Within 2 seconds of entering my password, my desktop is available, the Start menu is usable, and most of the tray icons have already loaded. What’s awesome (and indicative of how seek times are irrelevant with an SSD) is that I can load FireFox or IE *immediately* even while the last couple of tray icons are loading up. My 40,000-file Subversion directory is far faster to operate on. I can load up the large Visual Studio 2005 project I work on far more quickly. Outlook 2007 with it’s 500 MB PST and 300 MB OST file loads much more quickly. I can search it much more quickly (I still highly recommend using Windows Search 4‘s Outlook integration). I can suspend much more quickly. While I think there’s room for improvment (which I feel I would see if I were to run the SSD on a modern system), I’m pretty happy. I wouldn’t make the purchase a second time for a second system, however — it’s simply too expensive.
I’ve been a system admin for 15 years and working with computers even longer. There are a few moments in technological history that stand out in my mind: true multitasking (386 DX), OS/2 (Warp 3), Windows 95, Windows XP, Linux, Cable Internet, etc. I have a feeling I’ll be remembering SSD as one of those “moments.”