Are SSDs the new RAM for boosting system performance?

Are SSDs the new RAM for boosting system performance?

Summary: RAM was once the king of the system performance boost. Now, there's a new kid in town that's usurping the throne: SSDs.


SSDs are the new performance panacea. But, when SSDs first hit the scene a few years ago, we hated them. They were small--too small to be useful and too slow for anything but Netbooks. Technology took hold and now SSDs are our new heroes. They are the new RAM. Still a little pricey for widespread consumer use; servers, high-end laptops and ultrabooks come equipped with them. And, they're fast. They're cool. Sure, they're cool in the vernacular sense of the word but they're also cool in the Fahrenheit/Celsius sense too. No moving parts means cooler temps and cooler laps under them. My favorite thing to say about SSDs is that, "They toil not and neither do they spin."

For ten or more years, we Novell Nerds of yesteryear had a saying, "If you need better performance, add RAM." And, it was unquestionably true. More RAM was always the answer to boosting performance. The best part was that, even when I walked into a company that suffered from performance anxiety, I walked out a hero by simply adding RAM to the suffering Novell server. For twenty minutes worth of complete downtime, I could breathe new life into a Netware system by inserting more RAM or completely replacing its RAM with fresh new SIMMs or DIMMs. It was a great time to be in support.

Then came NT 3.51 Server. RAM really didn't help that much. Sure, if you doubled the RAM on an NT Server, it would perform better but not to the extent that a Novell Server would. There are many reasons for that but mostly it's in the architecture of the operating systems that make the differences significant. RAM was an easy fix. NT brought new requirements to the server rooms and data centers. You now had to mess with pagefiles, disk I/O, CPU, multiple CPUs and operating system tweaks and optimizations that still confuse system administrators to this day.

Adding RAM is no longer the panacea it once was. Neither is moving from 10K RPM to 15K RPM disks. Now, it's SSDs. 

Some hosting companies offer SSDs as an option when you build your server. For example, ElasticHosts, offers SSDs when you're building a new server in a dropdown list of disk options.

But why all the buzz about SSDs, you ask? Well, the price is still pretty high, as I wrote earlier, but the performance is up to ten times that of spinning disks. Some read operations receive a thirty-fold performance boost on SSDs. The downside is that SSDs are generally smaller than platter-based disks.

Look at a comparison of prices*:

Type Size (GB) Price (USD)
SSD 512 $411
SAS 500 $113
SATA (3.5) 500 $40
Ultra ATA 500 $100
Notebook (2.5) 500 $50

You can see that by price, SSDs are still 4x the price of the nearest competitive disk. But, if your application needs speed in the form of Disk I/O, then $400 is nominal for a 10x+ performance boost.

The bottom line is that if your bottom line can bear the price, then SSD is the way you should go. But, be cautious when selecting disks for your cloud-based solutions because the boost in price might not be worth the extra money. Your next best solution might be to spread the workload out onto multiple cheap servers.

What do you think of SSDs? Is the performance boost worth the extra money or is there a less expensive alternative. Talk back and let me know what you think.


Topics: Storage, Microsoft, Servers


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • What does this mean?

    "You now had to mess with pagefiles, disk I/O, CPU, multiple CPUs and operating system tweaks and optimizations that still confuse system administrators to this day."

    No more so than any other OS. If your task is RAM constrained then adding RAM will help. If it's not, no matter what OS you're running, then it won't.

    IME SSD's don't really offer a good cost / benefit at today's prices and capacities for the average user. Yeah boot and shutdown times are improved. Application launch times too. Aside from those "tasks" most users aren't disk constrained. At this time I cannot recommend an SSD to the average user.
    • SSD is definitely the direction

      For years it's clear that no matter how fast your chip and memory are, disk I/O nullifies it when your apps have to deal with lots data in and out of your hard drive.
    • ye ... between declaring

      ... the "death of the desktop PC" and proclaiming small screen tablets are more attractive (..especially to those with visual problems), i sometimes wonder why i bother frequenting ZDNet. And now we're expected to buy ultra-high prices for a technology that gives nominal, superficial benefits over older technology (e.g. SATA, PATA drives). Forehead, meet brick wall.

      Unless and until the SSD prices fall to a price parity point or only marginally higher than SATA drives, then SSD's will stay the luxury tech' they are.
    • Disagree

      "IME SSD's don't really offer a good cost / benefit at today's prices and capacities for the average user. Yeah boot and shutdown times are improved. Application launch times too. Aside from those "tasks" most users aren't disk constrained. At this time I cannot recommend an SSD to the average user."

      I'm so glad I didn't listen to you. I bought an SSD for my old Toshiba from 2006 (running a T2050 CPU - look it up, not a speed monster exactly) and it breathed new life in that computer - it was like night and day, not just boot and startup times, but everything - web browsing, videos, you name it. I now run Windows 8 Professional with WMC on it, and it works like a charm.

      I definitely disagree with you - for the average user that doesn't download GBs of videos to save, an 80GB-128GB SSd is a great investment for an old computer.
      • Everyone can use an SSD ...

        ... just not so much for data - use it for the OS and programs. Only put data on it when it will benefit from the speed (smaller databases, current work). I put one in my personal machine I built a year ago and I would recommend SDD for anyone's boot drive. My 128GB is still enough, but today 256 is plenty cheap.
        Schoolboy Bob
    • SSD's really shine

      When used for a cache to spinning drives. You can really see an improvement in RAIDs by using the SSD for a cache, then writing to the drives. When price and reliability get better, we will see SSD's take over in storage SAN's and NAS.
    • YMMV

      No idea what environment you work with, but SSDs improve just about any disk I/O except perhaps near line storage (it help there too, the cost is just way higher).

      SSDs especially shine with databases and processing many small files in the file system, where spinning drives provide abysmal performance. Raw read speeds of today's SSDs is in excess of 500 MB/sec - there are simply no such spinning disks.

      In addition to the very high Rae speeds, SSDs also have negligible access times, others of magnitude lower than that of spinning drives. If you need low-latency storage, you can of course achieve that with a LOT of spinning disks, but thn the power consumption, volume and costs become prohibitive.

      No surprise that SSDs are so popular for system drives in personal computers, as well.

      You might want to try a SSDS, ye.
    • Maybe it's not for your grandmother...

      ...or in my case, Mom; but anyone who has spent more than a decade in this industry will tell you different. First of all, the whole concept is painfully simple. This is really pushing it, but just like a stereo system, the end product is only as strong as its weakest link - in this case the spinning disk. A SSD will improve performance more than any other upgrade will (provided the previously stated RAM, old processors/technology, etc. aren't a limiting factor). Second, a vast majority of people think they need at 256 or 512G drive when a VERY small percentage of the can fill 2/3 of a128G drive. A 120G SSD runs ~$100. More and more is in the cloud, whether you own the cloud or not. Lastly, if you have the need to tote around so much data that you need that kind of space, the cost of a SSD is of little concern. Then let's not forget that they are particularly favorable for laptops that get bumped, moved, and unfortunately dropped. Personally, I won't own a computer (desktops included) without one. Totally worth it, even for many "average" users.
    • Stop giving bad advice

      You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. For the average user, the disk I/O is the performance bottleneck. After using SSDs for several years now, I find it downright painful to use a mechanical drive. SSDs make everything snappy, and contribute heavily to a pleasant user experience. With an SSD your computer is actually useful while transferring, scanning, or transcoding files the background. Epic win.
  • Too slow?

    "too small to be useful and too slow for anything but Netbooks."

    When were SSDs ever slower than HDDs?
    Koopa Troopa
    • As I said...

      When they first came out. Don't you remember? There were also many reports of drive slowdowns after continued use. Some people forget history.
      • Also slowdowns

        when the used capacity was over 50% (in the more affordable MLC mostly)
      • TRIM

        The drives (or OS?) didn't support TRIM to clean up deleted blocks. I don't think the drives were slow as much as they weren't polished / ready for prime time yet.
    • Re Too Slow

      Had an eee Netbook with 12gb SSD that was the bottleneck for that system. The drive was small like a RAM chip, where my attempt to replace with a 2.5 inch drive failed.
  • Definitely a worthwhile investment...

    I put a new SSD in a 5-year laptop that was running Vista. I first cloned the SSD and then upgraded it to Windows 8. Previously, it would take minutes before I could do anything after booting from a complete shutdown. Now it takes seconds to get to the lock screen, and a few more seconds after entering my password to get to the Start Screen. It is great. It would have been interesting to see how Windows 8 would have run on the old HDD and how Vista would have run on the new SSD. I didn’t want to upgrade the old HDD with Windows 8, in case I wanted/needed to go back to it. When I did pop the SSD in after cloning the old HDD, the laptop didn’t recognize Vista, so I couldn’t see how it would have run. Luckily, when I booted it up with Windows 8 Pro upgrade CD, the installation did recognize that Vista was on the drive and I was able to do the install with no major issues. Anyway, the combination of a new SSD and Windows 8 makes for a very fast machine. Love it.
  • I would say it is the new RAM indeed

    My system running Windows 7 Professional 64 bit boots in 5 seconds. Shuts down in 4 seconds.

    - Intel Xeon 3.2 GHz
    - 8 GBs of DDR 3 RAM
    - 160 GB SSD
  • Agreed. SSD = Best Upgrade

    Hybrid drives are also a good investment. Installing the OS and programs on an SSD drive and the rest of your data on a standard platter will increase performance dramatically. Do so and that aging home PC might just get you by another year or two.
    • Hybrid - could use help

      Dear CasualAdventurer - bought a Seagate hybrid HD for my wife's Dell laptop (Win XP Pro SP3 with 4GB RAM) but never noticed the promised increase in speed, possibly due to the mysterious "alignment" issue. I had backed up her entire old HD using RedoBackup and "restored" it into the new hybrid HD, but I guess RedoBackup didn't do the "alignment". Any advice? Or any links to web sites that actually explain it step-by-step? Thanks.
  • Totally agree. To increase system performance install a SSD.

    Without a question, the best bang for the buck currently is a SSD installation. Personally, I just upgraded my 2009 MacBook by installing a 480 GB SSD. Was it pricey? Yup. But in my opinion, the performance increase has added years of usefulness to my old MacBook.
    • SSD is the best upgrade

      to any computer. I upgraded a MacBook Pro with a 256 GB SSD. While in the upgrade business, I removed the DVD drive and put the standard spinning disk drive that the computer came with in its place. I also upgraded the RAM to 16 GB. That computer now is incredibly fast. I have not missed the DVD drive even once.