SSDs are fast, but do they last?

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

See also:

Editorial standards