|An Argument Against Expensive Solid State Drives|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Friday, 31 August 2012|
An Argument Against Expensive Solid State Drives
An industry that began with ultra-durable storage devices transformed overnight into NAND flash speed shops scratching for every I/O... and dollar.
I've been reporting on solid state drive technology since it made a retail debut back in February 2008, nearly five years ago. From the very start I've been a huge proponent of all things SSD, as it closes the gap between the fastest computer system components (processor followed by memory) and the slowest (data storage drive). But as speeds grew increasingly faster with each new generation, there's still one giant gap that remains: price. The cost of components has dropped year after year, but today the vast majority of low capacity entry-level SSDs still fetch about $1/GB compared to less than $0.20/GB for high-performance hard disk drive technology. In this editorial, I chronicle the current state of retail solid state storage devices.
While the technology has been around for decades, there wasn't much progress in the solid state storage industry until 2008. As the system memory market sputtered (or collapsed depending on viewpoint), a market-wide oversupply of NAND components forced prices so low that DDR2 and DDR3 became dirt cheap. In the pursuit of profit, many 'memory' companies reduced their mainstay product line and branched out into new territory. Some found margin in power supply units while others discovered it in computer cases, but a few would take a gamble on a little-known technology and invest into a consumer storage product called the Solid State Drive.
Around this same time SSDs were being used within experimental aerospace and military applications, as they were one of the only products durable enough to withstand constant vibration, high-gravity impact shock, and extreme temperature ranges. The first SSDs utilized SLC (single-layer cell) construction, using a component that was expensive to produce and offered unimpressive storage capacity. These early devices were very expensive, as well, but were usually funded by taxpayer dollars for government projects. As SSDs reached store shelves, sticker shock would cause deep criticism from consumers who argued the new storage devices failed to deliver enough value to justify the extremely expensive purchase price. In response, manufacturers determined that faster speeds would add to that value.
By 2009 solid state devices were fitted with more-affordable MLC (multi-layer cell) NAND flash components, allowing for impressive sales margin with every unit sold. The market soon exploded with SSDs, and brands fought to occupy shelf space beside competing hard disk drives. Finished goods companies (those who merely brand a product with their label) grabbed attention by designing bright and colorful packaging, a move that set their product apart from the familiar silver finish of hard drives. While companies late to the market worked desperately to lure consumers to their product with edgy graphics or unique color schemes, the early players were beginning tout performance specifications. For the next year, transfer speed was the primary talking point in SSD marketing material. Combined with the release of SATA 6 Gb/s on enthusiast motherboards, 2010 would relegate leading brand names to clamor for attention by producing the fastest SSDs possible.
Thanks to testing done by websites such as Benchmark Reviews and others, the emphasis on speed would soon yield way to IOPS (input-output per second) performance. Of course, this only paved the way for manufacturers to brag about their new IO performance specifications, keeping them ahead of other brands who still sold product based on speed alone. IOPS performance had always been a part of solid state storage, but it wasn't tapped as a marketing tool until media zeroed-in on its relevance to real-world performance. Unfortunately, this new marketing maneuver gave manufacturer's license to continue offering SSDs at an ultra-premium price that failed to close the gap with HDDs.
By the time 2011 arrived, some finished-goods companies invested into technology that would enable them to compete outside of SATA storage. For example, PCI-Express SSDs were introduced to further extend the run on speed and IOPS performance. By this point, though, consumers were beginning to notice that one generation of SSD operated nearly identical to another when they were used for real-world computing tasks. Benchmarks be damned. So for the first time since their debut, there was a real concerted effort to finally bridge that gap. Enter the solid state hybrid drive (SSHD). Hybrid storage looked great on paper, and truly delivered much of the same speedy application performance users had enjoyed with their solid state counterpart, but it wasn't enough to write off SSDs.
For the remainder of 2011 and well into 2012, manufacturers would introduce a myriad of hybrid storage solutions in effort to reduce overall costs while still delivering the quick application response time that had earned SSDs their reputation. This effort still continues today, and in many respects it has been succeeding, but the cost of true solid state drives has barely changed despite the introduction of new ultra-efficient NAND construction processes and much less expensive flash components. Other factors have also influenced SSD pricing, such as portable electronic devices like the smartphone and tablet platform. These devices have become extremely popular, forcing NAND flash suppliers to give them first consideration for access to supply.
So will the Solid State Drive ever achieve affordable pricing like its hard disk counterpart? Not likely, and certainly not in the foreseeable future. NAND flash pricing has taken a nose dive over the past twelve months, but supply is quickly consumed by portable and mobile devices produced by multi-billion dollar corporations. For the first time since they hit market, manufacturers are finding it difficult to sustain profits through SSD sales because of fierce competition and service/support costs. This has forced some to bow out, and others to seek buy-out of their brand. If there were ever a time when hybrid storage had a fighting chance to succeed, that time is right now.
Have been holding out for SSD pricing to drop to an affordable level before you buy?