Bizarro-Moore’s Law for SSDs?

It looks like SSDs are going to get worse over time, unlike hard drives:

SSDs are seemingly doomed. Why? Because as circuitry of NAND flash-based SSDs shrinks, densities increase. But that also means issues relating to read and write latency and data errors will increase as well.
The group discovered that write speed for pages in a flash block suffered “dramatic and predictable variations” in latency. Even more, the tests showed that as the NAND flash wore out, error rates varied widely between devices. Single-level cell NAND produced the best test results whereas multi-level cell and triple-level cell NAND produced less than spectacular results.

This suggests to me that SSDs are never going to break out of the boot-disk niche for hardware builds. I get equivalent read-speads on my striped hard drives as my boot SSD, for that matter.

time to buy an SSD: 128GB C300 for $200

judge me by my size, do you? No! And well you should not! For my ally is SATA3, and a powerful ally it is! (Use the code CRUCIAL4455, Luke...)
The SSD market is providing a rare opportunity for anyone not intent on building at the bleeding edge. The newest generation of SSDs like Crucial’s RealSSD C400, OCZ Vertex 3, and Intel’s SSD 320 are out and have been reviewed, but offer incremental performance upgrades at best (mainly from refinements of the controllers’ firmware, and also some further power consumption efficiency from moving to a 25 nm die). This means that the prior generation’s performance leaders are a real bargain at reduced prices.

For example, if you use the code CRUCIAL4455 at NewEgg (valid until tomorrow) you can get a C300 for $200, and free 2-day shipping. That’s $40 cheaper than I paid for it just a few weeks ago (and you can see my benchmarks here on PREFECT). I expect that the Vertex 2 and Intel’s SSD 510, also previous generation, will see some major rebates or discounts soon, but the C300 is really the best SSD of the 34nm generation. .

UPDATE: The 120 GB Intel 510 Series is also on sale at NewEgg until 4/7.

The bottom line is that the upgrade to an SSD packs better punch than upgrading RAM and is a far cheaper alternative to upgrading a mobo and CPU (Sandy Bridge is still not compelling an upgrade IMHO, which I can elucidate on in thread if anyone cares). The advantage of the form factor is that its compatible with any SATA laptop or any desktop (unfortunately, my old T42 is just outside that generation, still using ULTRA-ATA. And it has a broken LCD backlight, but I digress…). These things even come with simple utilities to clone your current drive, OS, apps, etc without a hitch to the SSD. This is the best bang for your buck. I think that the $200 price point for 128 GB is a price floor, however – it won’t go lower, because all the inventory of the old generation drives like the C300 will sell out at that price. Once the old generation drives (which as I mentioned, offer largely comparable performance) sell out, then the only SSD options will be the new generation which are about $100 more expensive. After that, your best window to buy an SSD again will be 6 months to a year from now, when the current “next” generation is again replaced by a new crop and the cycle repeats.

benchmarking the SSD vs striped drives

I’ve got the storage system all sorted out now. Here’s my disk manager:

Disk0 (E: – BACKUP) is the 2TB Western Digital Caviar Green, formatted as one large basic volume. Disk 1 and Disk 2 are the 1TB Samsung Spinpoints, where the first 128 GB of each have been striped together to create a single 256 GB striped volume (Y: – FASTDATA) and the latter 800 GB are mirrored (Z: – USERDATA). There’s also a strange unallocated block on one of the Spinpoints, which is relatively tiny (130 MB). Odd, that. Finally, Disk3 is the 128 GB Crucial RealSSD C300. I’ve moved all the user data directories to the mirrored partition and kept the Windows OS and application data on the SSD, with plenty of room to spare.

I was curious as to the performance of the striped volume versus the SSD. Note that I allocated the beginning of the spinpoints to the stripe, to “short-stroke” it (ie, the data is on the start of the disks, meaning the read heads have to travel less physical distance). Unfortunately, HD Tune does not seem to like partitions, only treats disks as single entities, so I used CrystalDiskMark 3.01 instead. The results were intriguing! Here are the runs for each partition – each run had 4 averages, 1000MB test data size:

2TB Western Digital Caviar Green

800GB mirrored partition, Samsung Spinpoint F3 (pair)

128 GB Crucial RealSSD C300

256GB striped partition (short-stroke), Samsung Spinpoint F3 (pair)

What is kind of amazing is that in sequential reads, the striped volume actually matches the SSD in read speed, and outperforms by a factor of 2 on write! However, when it comes to random 512K and 4K sectors, the SSD completely smokes the striped volume. This suggests that the striped volume would be just as good as an SSD for things like video other multimedia. In fact I might just rename my striped volume VIDEO and move the My Video folder to there instead of on USERDATA. Actually I should rename USERDATA just DATA as well 🙂

I’m not really sure why I created the striped volume, other than simply because I could. I didnt need a full terabyte for mirroring once the OS and apps are excluded. At some point in the future i can move to 2TB disks if necessary, but this setup shuold last me for a few years at minimum, if not longer – especially since I’m also segregating video. The only downside is that the striped volume not only lacks redundancy, it’s doubly vulnerable to disk failure. But that’s why I have my backup volume E, after all, and backblaze. (Though backblaze doesn’t backup data files over a certain size… need to check into that)

I’ve put a huge amount of overthought into this, but I think I am finally happy with how it all turned out. I need to do my final wrap up post on PREFECT now, with photos and cost estimate. Since the only game I run is WoW I think I am basically futureproof for a long time.

SSD me

ok, this thing is tiny.

stacked against a hard drive
the size of a credit card

For a few moments, I was confused enough to wonder if I’d accidentally ordered the 1.8″ drive size instead of the 2.5″. It’s not only small, it’s unbelievably lightweight. It comes with a nifty little SATA-to-USB adapter for cloning software to it prior to installation.

I’m really keen on doing a fresh install of Win 7 x64, but I also want to move my data off the boot drive, and make the data drive a mirrored volume (as I mentioned earlier, I bought two Spinpoint 1TB drives). So, here’s my order of operations:

1. install one 1TB spinpoint drive, formatting as two partitions, one 128 GB to match the SSD, the second as 872 GB for the data partition. I’m not exactly sure why I am creating the smaller partition, but it seemed logical, if you will pardon the pun. These will be Y: (SPARE) and Z: (USERDATA).

2. move the My Documents folder (and My Videos, My Music, etc) to USERDATA. This is a lot simpler than trying to move the system folders.

3. now, the original boot drive should only have about 30 GB left (just OS and apps). Clone this to the SSD using the included software and the cable that came with the SSD.

4. replace the boot drive (a 1 TB Seagate) with the SSD and boot up in full SSD glory. Re-run Windows Experience Index to bask in the glory of 7s. If all goes well, take the old boot drive back to Best Buy.

5. Add the second Spinpoint and mirror using Windows software RAID rather than the built-in motherboard variety (which is referred to disparagingly at various online forums as “fake RAID” because it still relies on the PC’s CPU to do most of the work.)

At this point I will have a BOOT partition in C: (128 GB SSD), a BACKUP partition in E: (2 TB Caviar Green), a USERDATA partition in Z: (870 GB mirrored Spinpoints) and a spare partition in Y: (128 GB which I might actually do short-stroke striping across the spinpoints just for fun, rather than a simple mirror. I might reserve that for video). There’s also the external 1 TB drive and Backblaze for redundancy.

I’ll update the post with my earlier hard drive benchmarks from HD Tune and the new one from the SSD for comparison once I’ve got it all in place…

UPDATE – here’s the benchmarks from the various drives using HDTune. The Samsung is actually the older one I had, which seemed to have issues and was returned to Amazon. I replaced it with the Seagate, and now have taken the Seagate back to Best Buy in favor of the SSD and the new pair of Spinpoints (the new spinpoints are not benchmarked yet but should be identical).

Also note the huge difference in the SSD performance between SATA 2 and 3 modes. The latter requires me to sacrifice the bandwidth to the PCI x16 slot however, so I need to test framerates in WoW in both configs (SATA 2, PCI-E x16 vs SATA 3, PCI-E x8) to see which is better overall. Even in SATA 2 mode, the SSD is a beast.

If you don’t feel like clicking through the thumbnails, here’s the data:

Drive | min / max / avg transfer rate | access time | burst rate
Samsung Spinpoint 1TB | 69.0 / 133.3 / 106.3 MB/sec | 14.6 msec | 95.0 MB/sec
Seagate Barracuda 1TB |60.2 / 103.8 / 91.2 MB/sec | 20.2 msec | 65.6 MB/sec
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB | 45.5 / 104.3 / 79.1 MB/sec | 17.5 msec | 95.0 MB/sec
Crucial RealSSD C300 (SATA2) | 105.7 / 154.7 / 143.6 MB/sec | 0.2 msec | 2410.3 MB/sec
Crucial RealSSD C300 (SATA3) | 227.4 / 274.2 / 243.0 MB/sec | 0.1 msec | 2050.8 MB/sec

Samsung Spinpoint 1TB

Seagate Barracuda 1TB

Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB

Crucial RealSSD c300 128GB (SATA2, 3 Gbps mode)

Crucial RealSSD c300 128GB (SATA3, 6 Gbps mode)

1.5 TB for the desk, SSD for the road

it’s even got it’s own gravitational field:

The new Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1.5TB HDD is 50 percent larger than the 1TB desktop drives available today, while the 500GB Momentus drives (available in 5400rpm and 7200rpm flavors) are 56 percent larger than the current high-capacity 320GB 2.5″ laptop drives.

The main difference between the new 1.5TB drive and the 1TB ST31000340AS already available is their platter density. Both disks are four-platter designs, but the 1TB drive uses four 250GB platters, while the new 1.5TB is apparently using four 375GB platters.

We could see modest increases through the end of the year, but 2TB before 2009 is a toss-up. 500GB platters are probably still a ways away, and while a 5x400GB platter configuration would do the trick, the first generation 1TB five platter drives tended to run hotter and noisier than the units that the followed.

I am fully aware that in five years someone will link to this post and guffaw at what a rube we all were for being impressed by this. I think Ars is being conservative here – someone is sure to roll out a 2TB drive (on 5 platters) before the end of the year. If not Seagate, then Hitachi.

While the desktop drive is noteworthy for its sheer size, the laptop drive doesn’t impress me at all, however. The future of laptop drives is SSD and SSD alone (I say this without irony, even though I just bought a 250 GB drive for my own laptop a few months ago). The far more important news on that front is that Samsung is opening the flood gates of volume production:

Seoul, Korea – July 9, 2008: Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., the world leader in advanced semiconductor technology, announced today that it has begun mass producing 1.8- and 2.5-inch multi-level cell (MLC)-based solid state drives (SSD) with a 128 Gigabyte (GB) storage capacity. Mass production of the Samsung MLC-based 64GB SSD also began this month.

Power consumption for the Samsung SSD is exceptionally low in standby mode at approximately 0.2 watts and in active mode at 0.5 watts. The Samsung MLC-based SSD has a write speed of 70MB/s and a read speed of 90MB/s.

Somehow I don’t think SSDs will ever supplant 3.5″ on the desktop, though I do think that eventually 2.5″ will become desktop standard. So the progress by Seagate on pushing the envelope on the notebook drive capacity is still relevant.

Do velociraptors eat SSDs?

The WD Raptor has long ruled the roost in terms of raw hard drive performance. These are 10,000 RPM drives that are widely used in servers and high performance gaming rigs. They are expensive, and they maxed out at 150 GB if I recall correctly. However, WD is now releasing the next generation, the cleverly named Velociraptor series, and these things are probably the fastest hard drives on earth. But I think the name has a double meaning for WD, because the very existence of this drive is a clear sign that the days of rotating-platter hard drives are soon over. These raptors might be the pinnacle of their evolution, but their breed is going extinct.

That the Velociraptors are awesome drives is not in dispute. Part of their advantage is that these unabashedly desktop-PC-oriented drives actually use notebook-drive technology for better power consumption and speed:

The new VelociRaptor takes an untraditional approach for a desktop HDD with its 2.5″ drive design. The 2.5″ form factor allows the drive to be smaller, lighter, and more power efficient than its 3.5″ rivals.

But what good is a 2.5″ HDD in a desktop system which typically accommodates 3.5″ HDDs? Western Digital addressed that issue by affixing the VelociRaptor to an “IcePack” heatsink which allows the drive to fit into a standard 3.5″ drive bay.
When it comes to performance, Western Digital promises a 30% increase in performance though is SATA 3Gb/sec interface, 1.4 million MTBF, and Rotary Acceleration Feed Forward (RAFF) to improve performance in vibration-heavy environments.

Using a 2.5 inch drive surrounded by a stabilizing and cooling frame to round out the 3.5 inch enclosure is just brilliant. I think that the 3.5 inch format is itself a dinosaur of sorts – they do rule in raw capacity, but 2.5 inch drives are catching up, and their smaller platter size means they can spin faster and consume less energy.

The idea behind the velociraptors is to compete with solid-state hard drives (SSDs) on performance, while maintaining the cost advantage (at present) of traditional HD technology. And there’s no doubt that these monsters deliver. But as the Extremetech indepth review notes, it represents the pinnacle of hard drive technology. This is the peak of evolution, but SSDs are only just starting to evolve. The new generation of SSDs is on the horizon, and are already faster and cheaper than before, so the value and performance proposition of the VR is going to fall, inevitably.

Consider that SuperTalent is going to release a 120 GB SSD for only $699 shortly. The read speed is going to be rated at 120 MB/sec. As TGDaily notes,

When I bought my 32 GB SSD from Samsung in 2006 and put it inside Q30Plus notebook, SSD drive settled me back for almost $2K. But read speed of 120 MB/s was stuff dreams were made from. Performance of that drive, considered world’s best SSD – was in 35-50 MB/s read range (don’t ask about write). But even that was enough to beat default 1.8″ 4300 rpm drive. Now, imagine putting a 120 MB/s read, 40 MB/s write SSD in your notebook that is currently ran either with 5400rpm or even 7200 rpm HDD.

As the CEO of SuperTalent Joe James notes, SSDs are going to drop in price 50% every 9 months for the forseeable future (call this James’ Law). Couple that with continual improvement in performance as SSD makers gain more and more experience, and you can see the writing on the wall.

The traditional hard drive makers know it too, and products like the VR are only half their response. The other half is to try and buy time through delaying tactics – such as lawsuits:

Seagate Technology, the largest maker of computer hard drives, made a pre-emptive strike against an emerging competitor on Monday when it filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing STEC Inc. of patent infringement.

In the suit, Seagate contends that STEC’s solid-state drive products violate four Seagate patents covering how such drives interface with computers.

STEC, based in Santa Ana, Calif., makes solid-state drives for corporations and other large enterprises, a market that Seagate executives have said the company plans to enter this year.

STEC is a relatively minor player, so this lawsuit is Seagate’s way of testing the waters before going after the bigger fry like Micron and Samsung. It’s a desperation move, and it will fail, but it will give Seagate time to try to catch up.

In 5 years, every notebook will come with an SSD. Traditional hard drives are going to be relegated to cheap desktops, servers, and external drives for backups or NAS. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Velociraptor is dethroned from the performance peak.