Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

SSDs

July 2013

By Mike Gould

SSD - Wasn’t that a radical student group founded in Ann Arbor in the Sixties? Um, no, that was SDS (Students for Democratic Society). Something to do with venereal disease? Nope, that’s STDs. Give up? Meet your new little friend, the Solid-State Drive (or Disk). This is what will replace the hard disk in your next computer, exchanging a mechanical device for a non-moving, chip version.

Storage Wars
As always, we start with a little history session. In The Beginning, mankind (or at least the computer-using subset of same) needed a way to store all the ones and zeroes they were creating with their new-fangled digital bean counters. The very first stab at this was the punched cards that drove the Jacquard weaving looms in the early 19th century. Holes in linked cards matched stitch one/purl two mechanisms and weaving became the first automated industry. See “Luddite” for reactions to this.

This led directly to the first punch card-based early computers. Next came paper tape, also punched, but coiled into a more manageable format. Then the floppy disk was invented and the data started being spun instead of coiled. We went through 8”, 5 1/4”, and 3 ½ ” floppies, then the more familiar (to you non-geezers out there) 3 ½” inch diskette with the hard plastic shell. These were cheap, easy to carry, and held up to 1.4K of data, which was sufficient unto the day.

Parallel to this technology was the development of the hard drive (HD). Initially the size of refrigerators with pricing to match, the HD evolved to the pocket sized, multi-terabit information carriers we know and love today.

All the disk-based systems above work with a disk covered with iron oxide (rust, basically) which can store and play back information when written/read by a magnetic head that travels back and forth over the disk, much like an old record player (for you current geezers out there).

HDs involve a lot of mechanical action: the disk spins, the head moves back and forth, and, in my case, Word files ensue. Actually, that is no longer the case as I have updated my ancient (five years old) Mac Pro to an SSD in the hopes of speeding things up. Speed is the need here. All this mechanical spinning and tracking stuff takes time – why can’t we just do things with solid state chips, as we do with the rest of our RAM? (RAM = Random Access Memory, the way computers keep track of your Facebook settings and downloaded kitteh pix.)

Well, now we can. Remember that your memory (see what I just did there?) comes in two flavors: system RAM, made of chips that hold your current work, instructions on what to do with it, and other background tasks, and storage RAM, which up to now is all your apps and files stored on spinning rust in your hard drive.

In other words, system RAM is sorta the size of your desktop – the more you have, the more stuff you can spread around and work with. Storage RAM is like your file cabinet – the more you have, the more stuff you can store.

In other other words: System RAM : solid state : chips : relatively expensive in large sizes. Storage RAM : spinning rust : hard disks : cheap in large sizes.

You can buy a 1Terabyte drive from Amazon for less than $80. For most people, this will hold most of everything you have ever written, photographed, or downloaded in your lifetime. Eighty bucks.

On the other hand, the chips in your system RAM cost around $150 for 32G. I’m too lazy to do the math here, but trust me that the $/Gig ratio is considerably higher.

RAM a Lama Ding Dong, the Disk is Dead
But, as usual, technology marches on and what was once prohibitively expensive is now merely irritatingly expensive. You can now buy a 500G solid state drive for a mere $350, and so I did. Note that this is still around seven times the cost of a similarly-sized mechanical HD, and 500G is way more than most people need in their main drive – I have a metric boatload of apps to manage, so I need a fairly bodacious drive to hold them.

I replaced the stock 500G hard drive in my Mac Pro with a solid-state Samsung 840 jobbie, and have lived happily ever after.

Well, almost. The whole point of this exercise is to speed things up, which, as a professional photographer and web guy, is kinda important in a time-is-money sort of way. I did see a nice speed bump in startup times, general application processes and finding things. But not as much as I expected, and I think that this is because:

My system is five years old.
I have six other spinning rust drives attached to it (which my system has to pay attention to).
My computer use is a bit more intensive than most folks’.

I have seen SSDs absolutely emit smoke and flame (not as in an actual ignition, but in the NASCAR sense) on single-drive, modern laptops. My system gained some zoom and verve, but the over-all performance, not that dramatic. Was it worth it? Absolutely. And in the future I can move this to a more modern system and enjoy even more speed.

Prose on Pros
What triggered this line of thinking was the announcement by Apple of the specs of their new Mac Pro, which will be my eventual replacement for the unit I’m using to bang out this little bit of reportage. Remember when Apple shocked the world by omitting the floppy drive in their first iMacs? Well, they’re at it again: the new Mac Pro will be all solid state, not a speck of rust to be found. I can’t wait.

Mike Gould is looking forward to giving up his disks of spinning rust, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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