• Top tips for buying SSDs

Solid-state disks (SSDs) are taking over the world. These devices, which unlike hard disk drives (HDDs) have no moving parts, are outselling HDDs in the Western European laptop market. By the end of 2020, research firm CONTEXT predicts that no new laptops in that region will use an HDD as its primary storage. They're also gaining traction in enterprise server and network storage applications.

Depending on where and how you use them, SSDs can boost your IT performance. As with any technology, though, this technology comes with some hidden complexity. It pays to ask yourself some key questions before pulling out your chequebook. Here are some points to consider.

Where am I installing the storage?

The nature of your SSD will depend in part on where you're installing it. If it's going in a desktop, then consumer-grade devices will generally suffice. If it's going in your network-attached storage (NAS) box or in a server, then you'll want NAS-ready or enterprise-class units. These offer more resilience, error-correction, and sustained read-write performance, but they come at a premium.

They might also use different underlying storage technology that affects their endurance and performance. Single-level (SLC) stores just one bit in a single cell, which is the physical unit of storage inside the silicon. This the fastest and most reliable. Multi-level cell (MLC) stores more data per cell but trades off speed for storage density, taking longer to read and write data than SLC. TLC stores even more data per cell, but is slower still. You'll find TLC inside most consumer-grade SSDs, but some manufacturers like Samsung still offer faster MLC units for consumer-grade applications as of mid-2020. There's another emerging tech: quad-level cell (QLC). This is denser still, but pretty rare.

How much cache does it have?

SSDs, especially those using slower media like TLC, use faster cache memory as a scratchpad to store data before writing it to disk. This speeds up the device. See how much cache the device comes with. More is better.

Where is my I/O bottleneck?

So, you've installed lots of expensive SSD silicon in a NAS box, but your users aren't seeing especially high speeds. Why? Check your network. If you're operating on a 1Gbit/sec network, then SSDs will retrieve data faster than the network can handle. You'd need to move to a 10Gbit/sec network to see more benefits.

What format and interface do I want?

SSDs come in different physical formats and connect to a computer in different ways. SATA (Serial ATA) is the most common drive interface, coming from the HDD world. SSDs supporting this format typically fit in a 2.5in drive bay, making them fine for an internal desktop, server, or network attached storage (NAS) installation.

Transfer speeds for SATA drives max out at about 6Gbits/sec. For faster operations you can also buy SSD add-in cards that plug directly into the PCI Express (PCIe) bus on a computer's motherboard.

The other form factor is M2. Colloquially known as the 'gum stick' format, it's a small thin board that affixes to a special port directly on the motherboard. It's common in laptops, but also in modern desktops, and it supports either SATA or PCIE interfaces.

There's another option with M2 drives: Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe). This is a special variant of PCIe that is far faster and built from the ground up for SSD connections.

What tasks are my workers performing?

If you're looking at desktop or laptop SSD installation, consider how your employees will use the drives. People working with photos, videos, large illustrations or CAD files will appreciate the ability to quickly read and write lots of data between the disk and memory, making higher-speed PCIe or NVMe drives more useful. Even those working with large spreadsheets and PowerPoint files might benefit. Those who mainly use their computers for Word documents and browsing won't see as much of an advantage from higher-speed interfaces like NVME.

How much SSD storage do I need?

Think about how much storage you need on your computer. The downside of SSDs is that with a maximum current capacity of 4Tb each they can store less than high-capacity HDDs, which currently top out at around 16Tb. If your workers can keep just a subset of their data (such as currently active files) on their local SSD and offload archived work to an HDD, then you can go with a small SSD and save capital costs.

How much money do I have?

The per-Mb cost for SSDs is far higher than HDDs. The cost of the 4Tb SSD mentioned above will be eye-watering compared to an equivalent HDD, so your budget and capacity requirement will ultimately determine how much solid-state storage you can put in your system.

You're going to buy SSDs sooner or later, and prices are coming down, but they're still at a significant enough premium that they're far from a throwaway technology. Armed with these questions, you can buy a solution that fits your business needs. And if you use it to speed up your video game performance on the side, then where's the harm?


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