We recently reviewed a 1TB drive from Hitachi and started reminiscing about the progress of hard drives. It has been a little over fifty years since IBM introduced the first hard drive in September of 1956. This hard drive had a 5 megabyte storage capability and consisted of 50 24-inch platters in an enclosure that required a fork lift to move it. The drive was only available at the time with the IBM 305 RAMAC system that was designed to process accounting information.

The advances in storage technology have been fast and furious since that eventful day in 1956. Over time hard disk capacity has grown increasingly larger while at the same time the drives have become smaller, less expensive, and generally a lot more reliable. However, the technology we have become dependent upon for our storage requirements has not really changed at all. We still have the basic design where a platter coated with a ferromagnetic material is used to store data and spins at a constant rate with an actuator arm hovering right above it which contains a read/write head for data retrieval or creation.

This mechanical process of storing and retrieving data has transformed over the years into what can only be considered a technical marvel but this whole design is still prone to disaster. After all, at any given time the read/write head could fail or physical shock could occur that would send it crashing onto the platters taking valuable data with it. This is only one of many scenarios that could cause data loss and the basic nature of the hard drive being a mechanical device still has inherent disadvantages that range from heat and power consumption to noise levels that are obtrusive at times. While we are at the point of another design technology breakthrough that will once again improve capacities and speed, the hard drive is still and will always remain a mechanical device.


There is always a better mouse trap and today we will take a quick look at one alternative to the ubiquitous hard drive. This particular mouse trap goes by the name Solid State Drive. A solid state drive is based on flash memory along with a flash controller and management software. The first flash memory was invented in the Toshiba laboratories and became a commercial product four years later in 1988 when Intel introduced it into retail markets.

Solid state drives have been around since 1989 but have been limited to highly specialized markets such as medical, industrial, or military use due to the exorbitant costs involved since their introduction. In fact, at one time a 1MB drive cost around $3500 and performed significantly worse than its mechanical counterpart. However, the drives thrived in the military, aerospace, and to some degree the medical fields due to the advantages of a flash memory based drive. Since these drives do not contain any moving parts they consume significantly less power, generate minimal heat, are totally silent, and as flash memory and controllers have matured they now offer similar or better performance when compared to hard drives in certain usage scenarios.

When we look at the market today, we see an explosive growth in the use of flash memory in everything from cell phones to iPods. As the volume of flash memory has grown over the past few years, the price has gone down. As of late, the price of flash memory has been declining about 40% per year on average. Along with the price decreases we have seen an exponential increase in the capacity of flash memory while its packaging footprint has been greatly reduced. In fact, the etching process has now reached a 50 nm design compared to 90 nm just two years ago. Also, the widespread use of multi-level cell (MLC - 2 bits per cell) NAND instead of the faster but significantly more expensive single-level cell (SLC - 1 bit per cell) NAND has helped reduce costs.

While the size and memory capacities are now competitive (128GB in a 1.8" form factor), the pricing is still significantly higher when compared to hard drive designs. The average cost for a competitive SSD design in the consumer market is currently about $17 per GB of storage. This does not compare favorably to $0.25-$0.40 per GB for a typical hard drive today. However, we are at the point where a SSD product can be competitive with a hard disk in the consumer market based upon its advantages to cost ratio in applications like a rugged notebook or ultra-light design that requires extremely low power envelopes and shock resistant operation. It's worth remembering that not long ago the first GB hard drives could easily cost several hundred dollars.

We are also at the point where the flash controller and software can ensure the longevity of the drive but more importantly that data integrity is significantly better than a typical hard drive. Current SSD products being released can ensure at least 100,000 write/erase cycles per sector which equates to a 1,000,000 hour MTBF rating. This means an average user can expect to use the drive for about 10 years under normal usage conditions or around five years in a 100% power-on state with an active/idle duty cycle at 90%. These numbers are subject to change depending upon the data management software algorithms and actual user patterns.

Manufacturers have started providing consumer level solid state drives with 67MB/sec read speeds and 45MB/sec write speeds along with a random read rate of 7000 inputs/outputs per second (IOPS) for a 512-byte transfer - more than 100 times faster than a hard disk drive. While the IOPS rate is impressive and certainly contributes to real performance increases by removing certain I/O bottlenecks, we found the average random access rate of .12ms to be an even bigger factor in providing class leading performance in several cases.

Our technology preview today is based on the Super Talent SSD16GB25/25M Flash Drive that is being introduced into the commercial and industrial markets at this time. This drive has lower performance capabilities than the recently released consumer drives from SanDisk and Samsung but will provide us with an early peek at SSD performance in several areas. We will state upfront that our results and comparisons against two top performing hard drives should be tempered greatly as this drive is targeted to a different market sector.

We are currently testing consumer oriented SSD products and will provide a full review in the near future with a revised benchmark test suite designed around Windows Vista and suitable for providing direct comparisons to the new hybrid hard drives that combine NAND flash memory and a mechanical hard drive to offer the best of both worlds, or so we think. In the meantime, let's see the specifics on this drive.

SSD16GB25/25M Features
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  • eguy - Monday, May 14, 2007 - link

    These guys are knowledgable and sell the Super Talent and other SSDs. They are even working on a RAID0 SSD box! http://www.dvnation.com/nand-flash-ssd.html">http://www.dvnation.com/nand-flash-ssd.html .

    There are not many SSDs that can benefit from RAID0. The issue is that the CONTROLLERS used IN these disks max out in speed before the NAND chips will. That means that the Samsung NAND chips while capable of 60+MB/S are throttled by a controller than in some cases will only do 25MB/S. In a hard disk, the media transfer rate is lower than the controller's bandwith. The hard disk controller can do 150MB/S+. So in hard drive land a 50MB/S hard disk + another 50MB/S hard disk = about 100MB/S in RAID0. But I've seen a 25MB/S SSD + 25MB/S SSD =, you ready for this? 17MB/S. DV Nation is predicting they will have a RAID0 box out later this year that can outperform a single SSD. They couldn't get the ultra-fast IDE Samsungs to RAID up. I told them I wanted to do 2X SATA SSDs in RAID and they said their customers had not had success with that.
    I'm thinking newer models might in the future.

    Also don't get bent out of shape between SATA and IDE in SSDs. IDEs are just as fast, if not faster than SATA. Even in the world of hard drives, IDE vs SATA does not matter in speed. Drive makers CHOOSE to make their fastest consumer drives in SATA, but even a 10 year old IDE interface is capable of 166MB/S, right? My 10,000 RPM SATA RAPTOR can only to 75MB/S, so IDE would be just as fast for it.

    Modern SSDs will outlast hard disks. Forget the write cycles. They are rated between 1,000,000 and 5,000,000 write cycles. The problem is, hard disks are not rated in write cycles. For an apples to apples comparison, you need to use MTBF (mean time between failures). SSDs are rated much MUCH higher in that regard. Look at documentation on Sandisk's site, Samsungs, all the big manufacturers and independent reviewers. I've seen math done that shows life of up to 144 years! (!??!!)
    Reply
  • Bladen - Tuesday, May 08, 2007 - link

    I think many of us would be interested in seeing exactly what RAID 0 can do for these things. It would be good to compare 2x RAID 0 of this drive vs 2x RAID 0 of the Sandisk and/or Samsung ones, and compare that to 2x RAID Raptors too.

    Just be particularly flattering to Sandisk or Samsung to get another drive of them if you can.
    Reply
  • abakshi - Tuesday, May 08, 2007 - link

    If I recall, the price point for the current (OEM) SanDisk 32GB SSD is $350 in volume. If those (which are shipping in laptops today) have much better performance than this, why would anyone use this in an industrial/medical/etc. application - pay $150 more for 1/2 the space and a slower drive? Am I missing something here?

    Also, any idea of when are the SanDisk/Samsung/etc. consumer SSD's coming out?

    Reply
  • PandaBear - Thursday, May 10, 2007 - link

    Yeah, longer life span if you do not read/write a lot. HD wear out regardless of use but flash usually doesn't. Also, industrial environment don't usually use a lot of storage but have a lot of packaging limitation (can't fit a large HD or don't have enough cooling) that rule out HD.

    Check out Hitachi's Endurastar HD, they are rated for industrial grade but are more expensive and smaller capactiy. Now that is a better comparison.
    Reply
  • MrGarrison - Wednesday, May 09, 2007 - link

    Samsung's SSDs are already out. Check Newegg. They are even available here in Sweden.

    I would buy two of their 16GB SSDs if only they had SATA interface. Oh well, guess I'll have to wait a couple of months more.
    Reply
  • Calin - Tuesday, May 08, 2007 - link

    Interesting review, but I have a small problem with it:
    Please, compare the cost per gigabyte of the 2.5" SSD drive with the cost per gigabyte of other 2.5" mechanical hard drives.
    While totally correct, the cost of $0.4/GB of current 3.5", high-capacity hard drives is much lower than the cost for the 2.5" mechanical hard drives (somewhere around the $1/GB, or slightly higher for low capacity drives).
    The 16GB 2.5" SSD don't fit in the place of a Raptor, and a Raptor won't fit in the place of a SSD 16GB drive.

    Thanks
    Reply
  • bob4432 - Monday, May 07, 2007 - link

    are the power requirements for the seagate 7200.2 correct - .87W / 2.42W? Reply
  • MadBoris - Monday, May 07, 2007 - link

    I'm just very disappointed with performance on these for consumer PC usage.
    I mean this is solid state memory.
    Somebody is going to break this wide open with performance someday, because flash is just so damn slow it's painful to write this.

    Making a RAMDRIVE today (using a portion of system RAM) on our PC's is thousands fold faster only lacking volatility for persistent data.

    Just duct tape some RAM sticks together on a PCB, hook a duracell to it and we should be good. ;) Well, you get the idea...We need to leverage performance of RAM today.

    Wake me up when this technology gets interesting.
    Reply
  • Shadar - Monday, May 07, 2007 - link

    The article seems to imply that transfer rates are the problem with performance. In this case a RAID of 2 or 4 of these in RAID-0 would drastically increase performance. 4 of these in a Raid 0 should crush a standard hard drive as the transfer rate would always be higher and it would have blazing access times.

    Though I must wonder why the CF cards are not raided as it is inside this drive. Why wouldn't the manufacturer be using 4 4GB cards in a raid array to boost the speeds themselves inside the box?
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Monday, May 07, 2007 - link

    quote:

    The article seems to imply that transfer rates are the problem with performance. In this case a RAID of 2 or 4 of these in RAID-0 would drastically increase performance. 4 of these in a Raid 0 should crush a standard hard drive as the transfer rate would always be higher and it would have blazing access times.


    Yeah sure, lets take something with an already severely limited lifespan, and decrease the lifespan by abusing it with RAID . . . Lets not forget that 4 of these drives would set you back over $2000, and it makes even less sense to do so.

    I have done intesive testing in this area of my own, and to tell you the truth, *you* do not need that type of performance. *you*, of course meaning, you, me, or the next guy. Besides all this, if you really want to waste you money in the name of peformance, why dont you get 4x or more servers, capable of supporting 32 GB of memory each, use iSCSI, export 31GB of ram from each server, and RAID across those. If you're worried about redundancy, toss in a couple of Raptors into the initiator, and run RAID 0+1, or RAID 10 for redundancy . . .
    Reply

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