Are SSDs the new RAM for boosting system performance?

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

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.


Editorial standards