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Wednesday 9 April 2008

The joy of no moving parts [Lurks]

SSD drives. They're the win. I guess we all realise they would be but for me it wasn't until using a Lenovo X300 laptop with one of the new bigger/faster 64GB SSD drives that I came to realise just how goddamn cool they are. My laptop only has a 1.2GHz C2D but it boots up feeling as snappy as my 4GHz quad core desktop.

You forget how long you're caused to wait around while a physical arm flies around with a little head on the end of it hovering a few microns above an insanely fastly rotating disk. We're all dimly aware of it. The noises, the clicking. That's another thing. My computing has always been rooted in the sound of computing. Ever since floppy drives where any computing activity made a huge amount of noise and gave you all sorts of feedback as to how well something was working.

Fast forward to today and the clicks and whirs we've been virtually offended by on Windows Vista because it dares to do them all the time rather than just when it's doing something, invading our sense of wanting only the noise when something is happening as another sense of yours peers under the hood of an otherwise impenetrable computer interface hiding all the working underneath.

But we're going to have to get used to it. It's fucking off for good although it's going to be weird. Computers will become like, for want of a better way of describing it, mobile phones. Unless it beeps or some graphics comes up, who knows what it's really doing.

I await the first clever bugger who makes a little application that makes hard drive sounds out the computer speakers. Perhaps the same issue that electric vehicles are also facing.

SSDs have other ramifications which the computer industry is only slowly waking up to. The idea of disk fragmentation is utterly meaningless. There's no need to optimise position of written data. In fact SSDs cheat internally deliberately to fragment data so that the same bits don't get re-written all the time due to their finite write-cycles.

At some point file systems and databases need to wake up to it also. When the distinction of a disk cache and the disk itself starts to become meaningless. Why sit there all the time generating easy to search indexes of your files when the FS itself may as well just be quickly readible in one go to find anything.

Bizarrely my Lenovo X300 came pre-bundled with Disk Keeper and Vista was pre-set to defrag. Something which is useless and even (minutely) detrimental to SSDs. Vista really ought to know if something is an SSD or not and deal with it. What are the ramifications for Readyboost? Anything readyboost does is clearly possible right on a bit of an SSD but then... maybe it's redundant because loading stuff normally is just as quick?

Curiously I also find people are a little uncertain about SSDs and settings that ought to be used with them. Do you use aggressive write caching of them in Windows Vista? (The SATA property) Might be a good idea, might reduce amount of writes and are we bothered about ramifications of an unexpected power down with journalling filesystems?

As to the rollout of SSDs, it's not exactly fast and there's not many products on the market to buy and most of those that are tend to be old gear which you really shouldn't pay money for. I think it's because of the IT and economic downturn to some degree. There's frightening progress going on in terms of capacity, cost, performance - particularly performance. So they'll be some reluctance to try mass commercialise something and potentially get stuck with hugely expensive inventory. This is a big issue for the IT industry at the best of times.

It also comes at a time when physical drives are at a zenith of their technical capability. The low cost of seriously large amounts of hard disk space is simply amazing now. Up against that you have to really want an SSD. But on a laptop... where there's several reasons stacking up. Reduced power consumption, increased resilience to shock and - here's the biggy - frightening gains in performance over slow-ass 2.5" notebook hard drives... they look pretty damn sweet and this is the first laptop I've ever owned that genuinely feels as snappy as a desktop.

Now I just wonder what my desktop would be like with an SSD...


  1. So speaking for myself, the amount of storage I'm putting in my desktops is decreasing rapidly over time. Data is generally whacked on my NV+ so thtat it can be accessed by anyone in the house. All that's installed locally is the OS, applications and (on my Vista box) games.

    That being the case, storage on the order of 128GB for a desktop doesn't seem an unreasonable trade off for the performance benefit and reduction in 'disk thrashing' noises. With more an more NAS appliances coming out on the market, are we far from the point where people buy a NAS, bung it under the stairs and no longer need massive storage density on their laptop/desktop? I certainly think so. I will wait a bit for price per GB to drop, I think, and also to see what impact the limited writes of SSDs have over time, but I think that it's definitely an interesting path to explore...


  2. Not sure the computer industry needs to wake up to the idea of SSDs. The concept has been around since the 70s and has been practical in high transaction database envrionments for many years.

    See the TMS RamSan line of products.


  3. The concept might have been in your pants since inception but how many laptops have you seen it in to date? 0/10 even by the long-term obscurorama of commentary of this esteemed clan.

  4. After reading your comment I read my comment, then I read the part of the original post my comment was in reference to. I can only assume you failed to do the latter