SSDs: are you experienced?

Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB

First reaction after installing an Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB SSD boot drive in my custom-built Core i7-860 PC running Windows 7:  awesome.

While several times the cost per GB of conventional drives, an entry-level SSD will run many times faster, and I think  it’s the perfect companion for today’s high-end processors.  The days of using conventional boot drives are surely limited.

I noticed that there are a lot of sites pirating this article verbatim.  Here is a link to the original on SoftwareKeith.com… — Keith

Fast. Smooth. Quiet.

The SSD at US$250 (on NewEgg.com) was rather pricey for a single PC component — it cost as much as the Core i7-860 CPU itself.   But I knew almost immediately that it was the right decision: with the SSD installed, everything flies !  The system feels so “smooth,” like the hard drive and the processor are in sync.  Windows 7 Ultimate installed in about 10 minutes flat;  it boots in about 20 seconds.   Apps leap onto the screen again within a second or two.

My favorite readers will remember that after my very fast RAID-10 array died (see my last post), I had to run the Core i7 box off a single 7200 RPM drive for a while, which showed clearly that the hard drive was a performance bottleneck.

Formatted, the SSD has about 120GB of space.  After installing Windows 7 Ultimate and a handful of core applications (FireFox, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.), I still had over 90 GB free.   After some heavier installs – including Office Professional 2010, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 – there’s still well over 80 GB free.  That’s more than enough for most people to play with for quite some time.

Why SSD’s smoke conventional drives

imageIn a word (or two): access time.  The access time is how long it takes the storage device to read data.

For conventional drives, this involves waiting until the data on the spinning hard drive platter (right) rotates under the read head, positioning the read head arm to the correct track (radially), and reading the data from the platter.  Conventional desktop hard drives, even the best in the world, have access times of  4 to 8 milliseconds, which turns out to be an eternity for today’s processors.

The following analogy brings home the massive disparity between the speed of a modern processors and hard drives:

The first thing that jumps out is how absurdly fast our processors are…  reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar.  Waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months.
– “What Your Computer Does While You Wait,” Gustavo Duarte

As it turns out, most of the work done by an operating system involves reading a ton of little files, more or less “randomly” accessing the hard drive.   Thus, impressively fast sequential read or write speeds are not nearly as important as random access read speed.   Anand Lal Shimpi explains why, even though the cost per GB is so much higher, SSDs are worth it:

Measuring random access is very important because that’s what generally happens when you go to run an application while doing other things on your computer. It’s random access that feels the slowest on your machine.  Most hard drives will take closer to 8 or 9 ms in this test.  The fastest SSDs can find the data you’re looking for in around 0.1 ms. That’s an order of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drive on the market today.  [KB: it’s actually almost two orders of magnitude faster…]
– “The SSD Anthology: Why You Should Want an SSD,” AnandTech, March 2009

This explains my own experience:  even though my formerly alive RAID-10 array benchmarked faster than the Kingston SSD overall, with a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1100 to the SSD’s 950, the system feels so much quicker with the SSD – without the headaches of RAID-10.

This is why I’m now an SSD convert.

See with your own eyes

Watch the actual launch speed of a handful of common applications on my Core i7-860 below.  This screencast was done immediately after reboot, so no applications are pre-loaded or cached in memory.  Most apps load in about a second or so;  Outlook 2010 takes the longest, but since my mail archives are on a network share, the five or so seconds it takes to load includes accessing a remote filesystem.

Windows 7 Ultimate + Core i7-860 @ 3.3 GHz + Kingston V-Series SSD

Conclusion

The lowly old spinning-platter hard drive is the primary bottleneck in the modern computer.   Though pricey, an SSD is a perfect match for a today’s fast processors.

***

For those still reading…

Benchmarks are below – you can skip this section if you’re not interested in my technological prognostications.

I’ll make a bold prediction: as a boot drive, the SSD was so effective at speeding up my computer, I believe that within two years, they will become mainstream as boot drive choices.  With the ever-increasing capabilities of our processors, and the ever-increasing demands we put on our computers, it’s a perfect choice.

The default configuration would be be an SSD- or memory-based boot drive, on which the operating system and applications are installed, supplemented where necessary by a second, higher-capcacity legacy technology drive (you know, the ones that go ‘round and ‘round).

Intelligent OS storage architectures?

If we’re lucky, Microsoft will get inspired and allow seamless stitching of fast SSD and slow legacy storage in their next version of Windows.  This not-yet-invented technology would enable two drives – a fast, smaller SSD and a slower, larger conventional drive –  to be seen as a single logical storage partition. The OS would have the intelligence, for instance, to automatically install applications on the fast part and keep things like large images – when necessary – on the slower drive.  Why not?

imageWhile you’re at it, Microsoft: use that legacy hard drive for a completely automated, idiot-proof backup system. This would have one switch at the highest level: “back up my system” – or not.   Want to improve your “street cred” against upstarts Apple and Google?  Let no Windows user henceforth ever lose their data. It’s the right thing to do.

Let’s face it: the SSD could basically be considered just a fast hard drive cache. Caching technology and cache-hit optimization strategies are fairly well-understood, as are the dynamics of logical block translation in operating systems:  why should it be difficult to have the OS manage and optimize a hybrid storage array?

It turns out there already are “hybrid hard drives” or “HHD’s”.  See the Tech Report’s “Seagate Momentus XT: a hybrid for the masses?” and  Wikipedia’s entry on hybrid drives.  These drives blend flash memory and a conventional hard drive in one package.  Unfortunately, this is not as flexible as an OS-based implementation would be.

Benchmarks

I promised benchmarks…  many of course are out there on the web, but below are some from my computer.

PassMark’s Disk Mark measured the random seek performance of the SSD at 60% higher than the RAID-10 array (in MB/s):

2010.08_PerformanceTest_Disk_Mark_-_i7-860_and_Kingston_SSD

HD Tune clocks its read performance at 250 MB/s, stellar:

2010.08_Kingston_SSD_HD_Tune_Read

HD Tune’s file benchmarks show file reads and writes many times faster than the average drive (in MB/s):

image

Windows Experience Index scores it 6.8 out of…  7.9? Could anything be less clear than Microsoft’s own explanation?

image

More Reading

As it’s mid-2010, I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but…  who’s going to be ahead of Anand?  Regardless, it’s good to be here:

“For the past several months I’ve been calling SSDs the single most noticeable upgrade you can do to your computer. … Whenever anyone mentions a more affordable SSD you always get several detractors saying that you could easily buy 2 VelociRaptors for the same price. Allow me to show you one table that should change your opinion.”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Anthology,” March 2009

A few months later, Anand followed up this magnum opus with yet another:

“What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it. ”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Relapse: Understanding and Choosing the Best SSD,”  August 2009

Other links:

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Fleming on August 4, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Great article! Wish I read this before I built my server. Then again, with the 1.3T storage I bought a 1T SSD is $4,000, my time isn’t worth that much ;-)

    Reply

  2. You would only use the SSD as a boot drive. After I dismantled my RAID-10 array (about 1 TB like your system), I used two of the four 500GB drives to create a 500GB RAID-1 mirror, which I use for system backup and other stuff.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Prodip Ch Roy on September 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    After reading your article on SSD boot drive, I googled the net and was confused with the following terms as, SSD controllers, write amplification, types of SSD- RAM-based, flash (SLC & MLC), PCIe-based. So please write an update showing an enthusiast who want to use SSDs as boot disk, how to choose the right one at present times.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Louis E. on August 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    What are your thoughts on the “smart cache” SSD use Intel has built into the Z68 chipset?…I’m a little hazy on how the SSD used would be installed.

    I’ve pretty much talked myself into waiting another year to replace my mother’s Pentium 4 system because PCIe 3.0 won’t be supported until Ivy Bridge,and I need to wait for the second batch of IB products for the first batch to have a price cut…and I want the additional (non-boot) SSD I install in 2016 or 2017 to be on PCIe 3.0,much faster than SATA Revision 3.

    Reply

    • Well, it’s always good to see caching technology, but the whole “Smart Response Technology” seems like it’s aimed at the high-end or server market. After reading Anand’s review of the Z68 platform (see page 2 for the SSD caching bit), I’d say it’s not that applicable to me. It uses up to 64 GB of SSD as a cache for larger, presumably spinning drives; but who needs access to your larger, spinning drives to be so fast — besides heavy-duty server applications managing a ton of data? If you want your box to be fast, use an SSD as a boot drive, and — you’re in pretty good shape. The Core i7-860 box I built in March 2010, which boots off of a Kingston V-Series 128 GB SSD, is still blazingly fast.

      What is interesting about the Z68 chipset is that it allows overclocking… now that’s cool. Anyway, that’s my $0.02.

      Reply

      • Posted by Louis E. on August 9, 2011 at 2:54 pm

        I do figure on going with a boot SSD and archive HDD.Right now a 240GB SSD costs $500 and a 3TB HDD costs $200 but things will be very different at mid-term refresh time (for a projected ten-year computer).PCIe SSDs can’t be boot drives but I figure the one installed then would assume archive responsibilities now unaffordable.I just need a motherboard with room for a discrete GPU (I doubt Ivy Bridge’s onboard graphics will match a $100 128-bit GDDR5 card) AND a PCIe 3 SSD…perhaps an ASUS P8Z77 Deluxe will be introduced.(At midterm time,the GPU will likewise be replaceable by better for less).

        Still,I want to stay off the enthusiast-end deviation from the bang-per-buck curve..Newegg is currently selling 16GB of G.Skill Ripjaws X DDR3-1866 SDRAM for $170(free shipping),but in DDR3-2200 (which isn’t even in the DDR3 spec range) it’s $600(and $6 shipping).Overclock modestly,stay away from the multi-slot monster GPUs and extra monitors,and you save a bundle without losing anything significant.And hex-core CPUs are not worth it now.

      • Posted by Louis E. on August 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm

        (Presto chango,that 3TB Barracuda XT is now $170 [if you believe their hard drives sorted by price page] or $175[if you follow the link to its own page],rather than $200).Your i7-860 component pricing had 4GB of DDR3-1600 at $115 and now 16GB of it cost $125,but it weirds me out that they have separate color heat sinks for people who want to coordinate with their motherboards.Next month may see the AMD Bulldozer launch answered by Intel with an i7-2800K.

      • Posted by Louis E. on August 17, 2011 at 8:50 pm

        I try to keep readers current but the price cuts keep coming:
        http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231456
        (if the link works)

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