SSDs are fast, but do they last?

SSDs are fast, but do they last?

Summary: If you use a PC for professional purposes, a solid-state drive is the best upgrade you can make. But SSDs are expensive, and they have a reputation for being finicky and failure prone. Is it a bum rap? Several real-world surveys of SSD use tell the real story.

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If you use a PC for professional purposes, you need a solid-state drive. Period. The difference in performance is profound, as just about any SSD owner will attest. The difference isn’t just faster startup and shutdown times, either. There’s a noticeable bump in speed and responsiveness for just about every common computing task.

But SSDs are expensive, and they have a reputation for being finicky and failure prone. My survey, plus some new data published today, suggests that could be a bum rap.

Jeff Atwood got a lot of attention for his blunt assertion in this May 2011 post that “Solid state hard drives fail. A lot.” And yet, he concludes, they're worth it:

SSDs are so scorching hot that I'm willing to put up with their craziness. Consider that just in the last two years, their performance has doubled. Doubled! And the latest, fastest SSDs can even saturate existing SATA interfaces; they need brand new 6 Gbps interfaces to fully strut their stuff. No CPU or memory upgrade can come close to touching that kind of real world performance increase.

I would agree with that overall assessment, but not with the assertion that every SSD is a failure waiting to happen. Frankly, that doesn’t line up with my experience. Over the past two years I have used a half-dozen SSDs from three manufacturers in a dozen notebooks and desktop PCs. None of them had any problems outside of normal setup hiccups.

A couple months ago I did a Twitter survey, asking my 10,000+ followers for their experience with SSDs. I heard from 33 people who collectively were using SSDs (either purchased with a system or installed as an upgrade) on 98 PCs. Only one person reported a problem, with a drive that failed within the first month. (The replacement unit has been trouble-free.)

Overwhelmingly, everyone who had hands-on experience with SSDs raved about the experience. Over and over, I heard the phrases: “No problems,” and “very satisfied,” with these accolades to performance mixed in:

  • Performance blows my mind.
  • Absolutely love the speed improvements. Outlook launches as fast as I can snap my fingers.
  • Starts up in 20 seconds, instant on from sleep, with Windows 7 64-bit.
  • Awesome. It was like putting a supercharger in my VW beetle...
  • Best upgrade I've EVER made.
  • It would be difficult to go back to a hard disk for the OS drive.
  • Added ~3 years of life to old MacBook due to performance increase.

That’s consistent, but the data set isn’t exactly enormous. That’s why I was happy this morning to see a detailed investigation by Andrew Ku at Tom’s Hardware: Is Your SSD More Reliable Than A Hard Drive?

Your eyes will probably glaze over at the nine-page report, which includes a review of some academic studies, some confusing data about product returns in France (“the data really tells us nothing about reliability”), and a group of four case studies from data centers that had integrated SSDs (primarily Intel drives) into their storage mix.

It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from the data, but in general Ku’s conclusions matched mine.

SSDs probably fail roughly as as often as conventional hard drives do, but for different reasons. Hard drives fail because mechanical systems break. With SSDs, the problems are more varied. “Sometimes firmware is to blame,” Ku concluded. “We know this because of the firmware updates vendors issue specifically targeting a documented problem. Other failures are electronic in nature. A capacitor or memory IC might go out, taking the SSD with it.”

I go through lots of conventional hard drives—so-called spinners—and I‘ve had plenty of failures over the years. In general, hard drives go bad over time, whereas the data center admins that Ku surveyed told a story similar to Atwood's:

[M]any of these SSDs failed without any early warning from SMART. This is something that we continue to hear from different data centers. … [H]ard drives tend to fail more gracefully. SSDs often die more abruptly, for any number of reasons that we've heard reported by actual end-users in the real world.

At current prices, a mixed storage environment is best, with SSDs for system drives, caching, and database access and conventional hard drives for mainline data storage. That’s true for my experience with desktop PCs. The data centers that Ku surveyed, for example, primarily use SSDs as mirrored boot volumes, for caching and logging ZFS servers, and for database servers. Maybe someday they can go all-SSD, but at today’s prices that would be prohibitively expensive.

For me, the bottom line is simple. I insist on a solid warranty for any SSD—at least three years. SSDs are still too expensive to just be tossed aside. And going SSD doesn’t remove the need for a solid backup strategy. But it does make those backups go faster.

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Topics: Hardware, CXO, Data Centers, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Storage, Windows

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42 comments
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  • I suspect that reliability is a mixed bag

    Much as with hard drives, I expect that SSD reliability will prove to be a mixed bag depending on any number of factors ranging from which batch of silicon is used for the controllers and NAND chips to the variability of the assembly/soldering process to the firmware. There's a lot that has to be right and any one thing that is wrong can leave you with a bricked SSD and a dead system. No different from "spinners" in that way really. We all know from experience that even "spinners" of the same model from the same maker can have differing levels of reliability due to minor batch differences at the time they were produced. I won't name any names here, but there have been some notorious batches of otherwise fine "spinner" drives from at least one or two companies over the years, and I can't see why SSD's should be any different in that regard.

    I finally pulled the trigger and went SSD a few months ago with a 128gb Samsung 470 that I installed on a Dell Latitude E6500. The Samsung 470 series isn't as fast as some of the newer SSDs with the latest gen Sandforce controllers, but it also doesn't seem to have any of the firmware and reliability issues that have plagued (by the maker's own admission) some of the newest gen SSD's. Regardless, I think that electro-mechanical hard disks will over time become veritable dinosaurs as SSD capacity/reliability go up and prices fall. As for me, I've had no issues so far and I'd have to say that since switching, I'm impressed by the difference in my Latitude and find it as or more responsive and "quick-feeling" than even the latest and greatest systems that are running regular hard disks. I won't be going back.
    Romberry
    • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

      @Romberry I have also used Dell Latitude systems, almost all of the categories they are with same conflagration and I never had a good experience using that system.
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    • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

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  • Normal setup hiccups?

    The phrase "normal setup hiccups" speaks volumes, I think, and it may slow adoption in consumerland. Certainly, we're used to such things by now, with some device types in particular - but a primary storage/boot device hasn't been among them for a very, very long time. "Plug and pray" needs to be history; consumer frustration becomes a factor, as does the need for technical assistance. Between that and the prices, I don't see these really going mainstream in anything but prebuilt and preconfigured mass market (consumer) systems and devices for some time. Sure, the techies love 'em and adopt 'em, and so does the enterprise, to a degree. But that's a far cry from the adoption rates and ease of installation that will be required to drive prices down to a widely consumer-accepted level. So, what will "some time" turn out to be? A year? Two? I don't know, but it isn't there yet. Perhaps by the time that the SSDs of the first generation are dying by the flock, they'll have it all smoothed out. Of course, mixed SSD and HD will probably be the best case use model for a very long time, though, with a "SSD backup partition" part of the normal HD drive mapping.
    ColinABQ
    • Indeed

      @ColinABQ

      As I've written in previous posts, the biggest issue is firmware. I had to do firmware updates for two drives in Dell notebooks to unlock their proper performance, and each upgrade required a complete backup, wipe, and restore. Ugh.

      Newer drives are less finicky, thank goodness.
      Ed Bott
      • I've heard SLC drives can last up to 10 years

        But they'll never come down in price because built-in obsolescence is the key. The SSD makers want you to buy a new MLC SSD every two or three years. Never mind the excuses they give about SLC manufacturing costs.
        ScorpioBlue
    • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

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  • Mirrors my own experience

    "[M]any of these SSDs failed without any early warning from SMART. This is something that we continue to hear from different data centers. ? [H]ard drives tend to fail more gracefully. SSDs often die more abruptly, for any number of reasons that we?ve heard reported by actual end-users in the real world."

    We (at the company) are slowly switching to SSD drives for our users. The ones that have failed go without any warning signs. One moment they are working great and the next moment they are completely dead. We are talking leading brands like Intel.

    Our conventional platter based drives tend to give early warning signs of failure giving us time to plan down time for the user.

    Everyone seems to appreciate the more graceful failures of the platter based drives.
    dragosani
    • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

      @dragosani SMART is designed to give early warning on 'spinners'. Why would anyone think SMART would work right on an SSD?
      mejohnsn
  • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

    Just give them some time.
    Very soon they will become mainstream and cheap.
    Maybe the hardrive will go the way of the Floppy.
    MoeFugger
    • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

      @MoeFugger I agree with your view point. SSD are relatively very expensive but technology never remains expensive as the new technology comes in with more features, but SSD will loose its price market.
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  • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

    I started about 18 months ago (when Win 7 was RTMed) with a Corsair P64 (transfer rates will flood SATA-1 with significantly slower writes) it had the firmware upgrade that supported Trim and I installed Windows 7 64-bit Ultimate. I've had no regrets. With such a small system drive you have to do regular household chores and move or delete as much as possible regularly as the crap builds up but for the improved user experience day-to-day it's a tiny price to pay. I've just replaced my year old 500GB 5400 i7 notebook drive with a Corsair Force Series 120 that streams, read & write, at speeds that almost flood SATA-2 (300MB/s)!

    I can only recommend SSDs to everyone who regularly uses a PC or notebook and if, like me, you need to run Visual Studio 2010 SP1, well you should have installed an SSD 6 months ago :-)
    NewZed
  • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

    I had heard that so I run two SSD mirrored. Since the biggest issue with ssd (MLC) is writing too much, I put the OS on SSD for fast boot, and volatile data (swap /var /tmp /home) on conventional disk. Once SLC come down in price I'll move /var and /tmp (my swap is never used so might not waste SLC on it). Probably not useful for laptops, but if you're worried with a desktop/server, use raid.
    normcf
  • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

    Very much like early LCD and plasma TV's. The Tech will improve it's just a case of the price coming down and reliability improving that governs just when to jump on the bandwagon. Wear writes are still a deep concern.
    Alan Smithie
  • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

    I have been using a Kingston SSD for about a year now, it ROCKS. It is only SATA II but, the improvement over platters is phenominal. I don't use it for storage, it is my OS drive and at 119gb formatted it is more than enough. Make the switch. You won't be disappointed.

    (1year ago)
    O.K. the new PC runs great; AMD AM3 Athlon 2.6ghz 64bit, 8gigs PC1600 GSkil ddr3, 1 - Kingston 128gb SSD HDD, 2X500gb WD Caviar Black HDD, 2 Sapphire Radeon HD5670s in x-fire, in a Rosewill Challenger case on a Gigabyte MA790XT-UD4P MOBO running WIN 7 Pro. I haven't even started to tap it's potential. External SATA is fantastic, more USB ports than I can use and you click a button and shit happens, almost no delay at all with multiple apps running. This thing runs Crysis at gamer level! Thanks Newegg

    And it is still running strong.
    lcloria2
  • Data recovery?

    As in, can data be recovered from failed SSD's, and if so, how easy/hard is it?
    ego.sum.stig
    • Depends on the cause of &quot;death&quot;

      @ego.sum.stig@... But over all, SSDs are almost impossible to read after the drive dies.
      wackoae
      • That's what I thought...

        But it's nice to have a prejudice confirmed to my conformity!
        ego.sum.stig
      • RE: SSDs are fast, but do they last?

        @wackoae <br>Not so much "impossible" as requiring very different techniques that are not yet commonly available. I've read several papers and articles on the topic. Some people have actually created tools to read the individual flash chips. One thing commonly mentioned is that data deletion is handled very differently than on HD. So that data/files you think are deleted may not be. But unlike hd, these deleted files are not simply hidden from Windows. In one case, they mentioned that they found many (many!) copies of a file that had been moved around by the SSD optimization system. And, deleted files can disappear faster than you expect too, because the flash cells have to be overwritten to clear them BEFORE a new file can be written to them, so there are "cleanup" utilities clearing cells in the background.<br><br>Here is a quote from one of the papers:<br>[snip: www.usenix.org/events/fast11/tech/full_papers/Wei.pdf]<br>Unless the drive is encrypted, recovering remnant data from the ash is not difcult. ... FPGA-based hardware we built to extract remnants. It cost $1000 to build, but a simpler, microcontroller-based version would cost as little as $200, and would require only a moderate amount of technical skill to construct.<br>[/snip]
        Ron_007
  • Tests at work show that they are WORST

    The reliability of SSDs is worst than standard HDDs, a lot worst when compared to enterprise class HDDs.

    They usually die within a year and in most cases, recovery of data is almost impossible. Because of this reason, they are limited in use in "products" that require fast IO for realtime performance reasons and mostly for read only.
    wackoae