SSDs inch toward the desktop

There’s been a steady flood of news about the emergence of solid state drive (SSD) systems in mainstream products. Samsung has a 64GB miniSATA SSD about half the size of a business card; Dell offers its Adamo XPS notebook with a 256GB SSD; Teradata delivers a data warehouse appliance packed with SSD storage, and IBM has begun to use SSDs in its storage area network systems.

All that and more in just a week. If you just read press releases and headlines about storage systems, you might think SSDs were the mainstream technology and that nothing else mattered.

Compared to dumpy old Winchester technology-based hard drives, SSDs are sexy. That’s primarily because they have the advantage of being fast, up to 250MB/sec for reads, in some cases. There’s no mechanical device scrambling around reading and writing data, so information just pages into memory in the blink of an eye. As such, SSDs are also silent.

In addition, prices for SSDs are also coming down to earth. Sort of. Crucial sells a 256GB SSD for $779 and Intel offers a 160GB device at $649. But they have a long way to go before they reach traditional hard disk drive prices. You can pick up a 1 terabyte LaCie drive for as low as $135.

So, you need a good reason to justify spending more than 5x the money to get a quarter of the storage capacity.

And speed is that reason, say the SSD advocates.

The problem is the speed is not constant. After moderate use, an SSD can lose its snappy performance because data gets fragmented easily. Tests done by Lloyd Chambers show that those 250MB/sec reads can plummet to 47MB/sec if the drive is not “reconditioned.” That process takes about an hour. So you might gain a few seconds in paging data into memory, but you’ll lose it all and more keeping your SSD in peak condition.

Sexy or not, SSDs will remain a niche storage technology for most desktop users. For the vast majority of us, we’ll be happy to use SSDs in the form of flash drives to carry mobile data or for quick, simple backups. But they have a long way to go in price and stability before we’ll want them as our primary storage for our personal computers.