Amherst Bytes: The End of the Hard Drive; The Rise of the SSD
By Dylan Herts '13
In 2000, IBM developed the world’s first gigabyte hard drive; it weighed 550 pounds and cost $40,000. A decade later, our laptops hold hundreds of gigabytes and a one terabyte desktop drive can be had for $70. However astonishing these improvements may be, they are advancements in degree rather than in kind. HDDs (hard disk drives) are the only moving components inside personal computers aside from cooling fans and the CD/DVD drive. They’re fragile, slow and long overdue for a replacement. 2010 may mark the 10th anniversary of the 1GB hard drive, but it will also bring the rise of the solid-state drive (SSD) and mark the beginning of the end for HDDs.

Solid-state drives are, in simple terms, just big flash drives. Whereas HDDs mechanically store data on magnetic metal platters, SSDs use printed circuit boards equipped with flash microchips. They may look alike on the outside, but those insides make for a world of difference. Consumers have already used the SSDs in iPhones and iPods (except the Classic), but only recently have SSDs become capacious enough for use in traditional computers, where they offer their real benefits.

SSDs are insanely fast, and they’re only getting faster. Computers using hard drives start up slowly and have trouble multitasking because the read/write head can only be in one place at once and has to constantly retrace its steps to find data that has been inconveniently written to separate parts of the disk. If you’ve ever had to defragment your hard drive, you’ve essentially just taken all the data written to random spaces on those disks and lumped it in one convenient block. Without moving parts and fragmentation, SSDs are significantly faster and never need defragmentation. In addition, manufacturers are consistently optimizing the controllers that tell solid-state drives how to run; as these new controllers (like Sandforce and Marvell) are released, SSDs are only getting faster.

Anyone who has lost their music and work because of a failed hard drive can appreciate the fragility of traditional drives. HDDs break easily when dropped and are even less tolerant of abuse when up and running. Any sudden movement could shake the read/write head, disrupting data operations or even killing the drive. Ambient temperatures and pressure can take their toll on a hard drive, reducing its lifespan if not frying it outright. SSDs, on the other hand, work just fine even while jumping on a trampoline (seriously, it’s on YouTube) and can take a considerable amount of abuse in terms of temperature, pressure and force.

As with any new technology, SSDs are far from perfect. Though durable, their overall lifespan is limited to a certain number of read/write cycles by the way flash storage is manufactured; however, it still surpasses that of a HDD exposed to typical daily abuse. SSD performance also degrades over time unless users install special algorithmic functions like TRIM, which is supported in Windows 7 but has not yet been added to Mac OS X.

Theoretical limitations aside, the real barrier for most consumers is the cost. Solid-state drives still cost far more per gigabyte, and while a 320GB HDD might go for $60, a SSD of a comparable size will be upwards of $400. Prices will drop in time as manufacturing processes develop, but for now they severely limit the realistic applications of SSDs.

Those manufacturing developments are coming at an accelerated pace and if this trend continues, 2010 just might usher in a generation of inexpensive, mainstream solid state drives. Until then, consumers (and students) still have the opportunity to benefit from SSDs. Students who own performance desktops should strongly consider purchasing a 30-64GB SSD (check out Crucial, Mushkin, Intel and OCZ) to store just their operating system, while tech-savvy students who own laptops might want to put some thought into whether they’re willing and able to sacrifice storage space for large gains in performance. As with any computer hardware, SSD developments come quickly and students have little to lose by waiting for lower prices or higher performance. This year should bring us significantly closer to the mainstream adoption of SSDs, and finally giving hard drives the boot.

Issue 02, Submitted 2010-09-15 01:56:09