by Martin Veitch

Solid-state drives hit the desktop

Oct 24, 2010
Data CenterIT LeadershipIT Strategy

When executives of Kingston Technology told me that they were appealing to CIOs to upgrade their client devices to solid state drives (SSDs), I was sceptical. Number one: most real CIOs don’t tend to get overly involved in the minutiae of their personal computer storage technologies. And number two, what real difference is switching from a traditional hard disk drive technology to SSD going to make? After meeting the company and talking by phone to one interesting customer, however, I was somewhat more receptive.

Kingston made its name selling memory upgrades. In the 1980s and 1990s, upgrading memory capacity was the no-brainer of all no-brainers for anybody wanting to run the latest software. Generations of Windows­ operating systems and applications mandated an upgrade and, if you couldn’t afford new PCs then slamming in the RAM tended to be a good halfway house, usually providing better value in performance terms than a processor swap-out or other changes.

SSD is a brand-new business for Kingston but it’s entered the market because in short it believes that the SSD is the new RAM and plans to build a $500m revenue stream within three years. And while many are getting excited about the prospects for servers, Kingston see its chance in mostly focusing on client-side devices.

Why SSD? Well, these products based on flash memory are robust as they have no moving parts, unlike hard drives with their read/write heads and spinning platters. They’re very fast and have low latency so finding and opening files or applications is quick and chunks of time are saved from boot sequences. They run cool so you don’t need lots of air or cooling around them and they’re energy efficient which is good for battery life and, ultimately, the planet. They’re also very quiet and the early-ish data suggests they are becoming very reliable.

“In a shrinking budget environment driven by the macro-economic situation, there’s not enough of a consideration for how NAND-enabled [the most advanced form of flash memory so far] SSD should be part of the computing platform on the client side,” says Darwin Chen, Kingston vice president for SSD and flash. “The hard drive is the bottleneck.”

Trends such as server-based computing, Windows 7 migrations, security quarantines for desk-less workers and so on require a faster drive, he suggests. Many businesses that passed on Windows Vista need a refresh but can’t afford a full desktop refresh so SSDs do something significant to speed and represent a simple ­upgrade for about $250 versus $1000 for a new PC.

Chen suggests that the “sweet spot” just arriving is a price of $2 per gigabyte and claims that Kingston has “samples in thousands of corporations”.

Capacity not a concern SSD cannot match HDD for capacity just now but Chen believes that 90GB to 100GB will give users plenty of storage and says that IT bosses are having problems with users that fill today’s huge drives with personal files that make it hard to ensure security and good governance. He also notes that with the transition from single-core to multi-core processors and the move to laptops over desktops, alternative upgrades like processor and graphics have become much trickier.

OK, so what does a real-world user say? Stuart Gale is head of global IT services at Intelligent Energy which made news recently when its hydrogen fuel cells ­replaced the engine in one of London’s iconic black cabs.

“We identified two areas of the business where SSD could help us out,” he explains.

“First was test stations connected to our fuel cells that can run 10,000-hour tests. After reviewing support calls on mainly hard disk drive failures we realised we need to change something.

“We started by looking at hard disk drive manufacturers and RAID solu­tions. Hardware RAID was fairly expensive, and I had always been a big fan of the potential­ of SSDs and very shortly realised the pot­ential was very good for our application.

“What we’ve seen is absolutely fantastic. We’ve reduced the number of hard disk drive failures. There have been none at all and user feedback has been excellent. We can complete tests and instantly use computers, which was more or less unheard of using hard disk drives.

“It’s a big success for us. Downtime may affect project deadlines and installing SSDs improved application performance and reliability of machines and reduced the amount of heat dissipated.

“Over a year, 30 hard disk drive replace­ments were required in between testing and each time the machine goes down there needs to be a controlled stop and IT needs to get involved for calibration and validation. It cost us 10 hours every time we have a downed machine. A fuel cell will go on forever so long as you provide it with hydrogen. The challenge is to build a computer that is as robust.

Gale also found that replacing hard drives with SSDs helped prolong the life of staff members’ portable PCs.

“[The second appealing area] was lap­tops. We’re really trying to get the most out of our laptops rather than replace. We had a lot of ‘my laptop needs replacing, it’s running slow’. You look and see the application portfolio hasn’t changed and, to be perfectly­ honest, it’s down to the hard drives on the machine. We’ve improved boot times and application performance and a number of users have confirmed battery life has increased.

“If I can keep the guys productive we’re getting gains back on this. And in terms of having to replace laptops this has extended life to the users and we’ve had no complaints. We’ve already had huge comeback on our investment. We’ve had them over a year now and had no failures.”

Gale, who has purchased 128GB drives “for some of the heavyweight users” and some 64GB SSDs, also backs Chen’s view that reduced capacity in SSDs versus HDDs needn’t be such a bad thing.

“One of our concerns in providing half a terabyte or a terabyte is [users saying] ‘look at all the space I have here! I can put on all our family pictures and MP3s. [Smaller capacities are] more than ample and it keeps users a bit more current.”

This is all very interesting for the CIO or his lieutenants charged with figuring out a sensible, economical upgrade cycle­ for slowing clients. It might be that the low cost per gigabyte is the true sweet spot for SSD but the technology appears an obvious ­contender for delighting end-users. It’s certainly worth exploring.