High-performing, affordable SSDs set to take over consumer market

The prices of SSD drives have been volatile in recent times, with high-capacity drives becoming more affordable per gigabyte and low-capacity drives remaining relatively higher in cost. However, it appears likely that most SSDs will eventually decrease in price while simultaneously reaching higher levels of performance.

Access to these larger repositories of lower-cost storage will transform SSDs into key assets for individuals and businesses. Adoption of flash-based memory will pick up speed over the next decade, as new innovations make it increasingly easier for manufacturers to create long-lasting, high-performing drives that can reliably store large amounts of data.

Mobile devices and slimline laptops, such as Ultrabooks, have been the catalysts for consumer adoption of SSDs, but there are growth opportunities for aftermarket SSDs and specialized drives in the enterprise, where HDDs are still popular. According to IDG News Service's Agam Shah, SSDs may become important server components, due to advantages like their small sizes, quick read/write speeds and low power consumption, which also make SSDs preferable to HDDs in consumer contexts.

The only remaining HDD advantage – price – is likely to disappear as NAND technology matures. Speaking to Shah, Objective Analysis analyst Jim Handy expressed optimism about NAND's popularity and room for growth moving forward. 

"It's going to be a long time until NAND flash runs out of steam," stated Handy.

Specific price and performance improvements
Efficient new technologies like vertical NAND and triple level cell storage arrays may give SSDs a needed boost in their price competition with HDDs. ExtremeTech's Joel Hruska observed that manufacturers had not implemented V-NAND or TLC in widely available devices yet, but that these new approaches to flash could put downward pressure on consumer SSD prices and accelerate the pace of SSDs overtaking HDDs.

The refinement and growing affordability of NAND technology is already having a noticeable effect on HDDs. Hruska noted that some drive manufacturers had once projected that the majority of laptops would have 7,200 RPM HDDs by 2013.

Instead, these specific HDDs are being phased out, meaning that consumers most interested in performance may have gravitated toward SSDs while price-conscious ones have stuck with 5,400 HDDs. However, the mass-market availability of V-NAND, TLC and similar SSD arrays may eventually obviate even the low-end HDD market.

Optimizing SSD drive space and performance on MacBooks and PCs

Whether working with a high-capacity SSD drive or a smaller consumer model used in addition to an HDD or as part of a hybrid drive, getting the most speed and endurance out of flash-based storage requires careful management of space. Archiving tools can provide efficient ways to backup data other than core programs and operating systems, so that SSD storage and resources are reserved for essential processes and files. If using a MacBook Pro, individuals have the option to install an SSD into one of the laptop's standard SATA ports and employing the original HDD as a repository for less-used applications.

Clearing up space for easier migration and better performance
Whether facing tight space constraints or simply seeking to free up storage, PC users can usually benefit from cleaning up their temporary files, which can take up several GB of valuable SSD space, and disabling Windows' hibernation process, which stores system states directly on the drive.

"You would be surprised how much you can fit on a small SSD," explained Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon in a column on the subject. "I'm using an 80 GB SSD in my machine, and its housing Windows plus all my programs without a problem. That said, I do have to clean up the drive from time to time, since Windows can often put some pretty big files on the C drive for no reason."

Similarly, users should move Windows' critical pagefile.sys file, which triages apps into a hidden location in order to free up additional RAM but is itself extremely large, to an HDD if possible. Additional space savings may be achieved through data archiving solutions for large and/or less frequently accessed files.

Using multiple drives on a MacBook Pro
Most laptops with an internal optical drive and standard SATA ports can accommodate additional SSDs, which can solve the storage crunch that sometimes result from using a small-capacity standalone SSD.

In a separate column, Gordon explained that MacBook Pros can be heavily modified with extra drives under the hood. Doing so usually entails letting the machine cool down after being powered-off and then removing the battery if applicable. An extra SSD drive can be loaded into the disc drive's previous location, using an optical bay to hold it.

If swapping out the optical drive in this way, a user can procure an external DVD drive to retain disc-reading functionality while still upgrading internal storage and performance.

Effective business continuity requires variety of storage

Business continuity plans are vital hedges against unexpected natural disasters, computer viruses and cyberattacks. However, many organizations may be unprepared for such contingencies right now, or are pursuing inefficient approaches that are detracting from productivity. While antivirus software can help to ward off some incidents, companies may also need to consider data archiving solutions and, in the case of small and midsize business, disc-based backups to preserve their critical information.

Malware and viruses can enter corporate networks via unsecured applications like social networks, putting data at risk from chargeware schemes that seek to sell it on the Web for thousands of dollars. A prominent computer virus called Zeus, originally designed to steal credit card numbers, has been modified to also generate fake mobile social network "likes." Once it infects a PC, that computer becomes an instrument in a cybercrime network and its data may be at risk from theft, according to Reuters correspondent Jim Finkle.

Continuity plans need more variety
With many corporations now offering bring-your-own-device policies that permit mobile hardware for handling of sensitive data, such risks are magnified. Since many of these new portable devices may be slimline laptops, an external DVD drive could be useful as a way to give them the ability to read discs and create backups for SMBs. However, organizations have not always been so forward-looking in their continuity plans.

"The problem is that when everything is running smoothly, no one thinks about what will happen and how business will get done when disaster strikes," wrote the authors of a recent editorial in InvestmentNews. "The plan is there — somewhere — but is rarely reviewed, updated or tested."

Preemptive external storage and data archiving strategies may be needed since antivirus software does not always catch threats before they cause damage. Additionally, some organizations may be using too many different security solutions, which Seattle Times columnist Patrick Marshall observed could result in slow PC performance. Even if a company cannot trim its security suite down to only one or two products, SSD drives may still help keep its computers running quickly and smoothly.

Ultimately, business continuity strategies should ensure that data is safe even in extreme events like telecommunications outages or facilities destruction. Since discs created with a Blu-ray burner are highly portable, SMBs can distribute them across multiple sites so that they will have access to data in most circumstances.

"A good plan needs to consider where and how electronic records are stored," advised the InvestmentNews editorialists, underscoring the importance of portable and reliable storage.

High-density optical discs may change data backup

The next generation of high-density optical media may store as much as 300 GB on a single disc, allowing it to accommodate 4K video and movies and complex video games. Additionally, this higher capacity, coupled with the relatively low price of individual discs, will make optical storage an increasingly feasible option for persons and companies who already use a Blu-ray burner or USB optical drive to create backups. For parties that opt for other backup and archiving solutions, the internal optical drives on their laptops can often easily be replaced with additional  SSD drives.

Right now, a standard single-layer Blu-ray disc can hold 25 GB of data, with multi-layered discs featuring greater capacities, and it is excellent for storing uncompressed and HD video, as well as simpler photos and files. By 2015, professionals may have additional storage options once Sony and Panasonic introduce a new higher density standard, according to a report from IDG Creative Lab's Carter McCoy.

These new discs may be useful for small businesses with surging data needs. Alongside cloud solutions, optical media can provide cost-effective storage whose contents can be easily distributed and shared.

"Optical discs are also a good medium for distributing applications or information to users, or sharing data with others," wrote McCoy. "They provide a disposable, one-time option for sharing data, making it so that you don't have to let go of your hard drive in the process."

However, he noted that the price for next-generation discs would be a key determinant of their success in business. Organizations may instead focus most of their energy on data archiving solutions that can handle large volumes of information and ensure operational continuity.

Installing an additional SSD
PCs that can read and write to 300 GB discs are still a ways off. On current hardware, users can diversify their storage options by swapping out the optical drive for an SSD and then attaching an external DVD drive in order to retain disc-reading functionality.

Typically, an optical drive connects to the computer via a SATA, meaning that its slot can be filled by an aftermarket SSD, according to Notebook​Review's Charles Jefferies. Adding the new drive may require the use of a supplemental conversion tool, as SSD and optical drive SATA connectors often differ in size and cannot be aligned as is. If users go this route, however, they will be able to bolster the performance of their workstations considerably.

Safely backing up data before moving to new SSD drives

SSD drives are gradually becoming more affordable and capacious, which is good news for users and businesses that have not upgraded from their HDDs yet, but are interested in ultimately procuring faster, more reliable flash-based storage. There are a few key considerations when moving to new SSDs, however, including proper migration of data, applications and operating systems. For individuals opting for new small-capacity SSDs, data archiving solutions may also be useful for backing up and storing their old files.

One of the key challenges to making the HDD/SSD switch is that SSDs, while offering better performance, have not completely caught up to the large amount of inexpensive storage offered by mass-market HDDs yet. Typically, a user migrating data to a new drive of any kind should buy one that has multiple times the capacity of the previous storage medium.

However, in the case of an HDD-to-SSD migration, not everything may fit onto the smaller drive, making it important for the user to archive personal data like documents and photos in order to ensure that the essential Windows install image fits comfortably on to the new SSD.

"Installing a solid-state drive is one of the best upgrades you can make to your computer, but migrating your Windows installation to a small drive can be tricky, because your data won't necessarily all fit on the drive," clarified Lifehacker contributor Whitson Gordon.

Backing up and trimming down drive contents
The first thing to do is to defragment the HDD one last time. This process will not be necessary after the new SSD is up and running, since it does not have platters or mechanical read/write heads.

After finishing, a full backup of the drive should be made. Users have a number of options here, including swapping out an optical drive for an additional SSD, creating backup discs with a Blu-ray burner, uploading files to a cloud or archiving the data for additional safety.

With the backup created, the contents of the main drive can be cleaned up so that the operating system will fit onto the SSD. Large files like music and uncompressed video can be safely removed since they have been duplicated elsewhere. Additionally, in a separate Lifehacker article a reader told Gordon via email that users should always check their C drives in Windows for additional space-consuming applications, such as virtualization solutions that sometimes store all of their virtual machines on the local drive.

Adding RAM can improve life of SSD drives

SSD drives confer numerous benefits for MacBooks and PC laptops, including quicker boot-up time, fewer moving parts and potentially longer life spans compared with HDDs. However, some SSDs can struggle with endurance as a result of their structures' flash-based components, which can degrade after numerous write operations. In addition to procuring their drives from a reputable vendor, professionals and businesses may also be able to improve SSD endurance by adding more RAM to their computers.

The speed and reliability of an SSD for video editing can be the difference in completing a project on schedule, since a computer equipped with one can begin accessing and writing its files right away. PCMag's Joel Santo Domingo recently outlined some of the key advantages of SSDs, including their resistance to damage from inadvertent drops. Dropping a PC that has an HDD in it can result in a catastrophic loss of data, while HDD fragmentation can reduce storage performance and require time-consuming defragmentation processes. Aside from having stationary, physically durable storage, an SSD also gets a computer up and running more quickly.

"A SSD-equipped PC will boot in seconds, certainly under a minute," wrote Domingo. "A hard drive requires time to speed up to operating specs, and will continue to be slower than a SSD during normal operation. A PC or Mac with an SSD boots faster, launches apps faster, and has higher overall performance."

SSD endurance issues and solutions
On some SSDs, the NAND cells may deteriorate more quickly than is desirable, typically because of inefficient I/O operations from machines with inadequate RAM allotments. Overly frequent movement of electrons between SSD cells can eventually weaken the drive's insulator, explained The Tech Report's Jeff Gasior.

Tom's Hardware contributors Manuel Masiero and Achim Roos ran a series of PC tests that measured hardware and SSD write performance under strenuous loads in applications like Adobe Photosohop and Microsoft Visual Studio.

After initially running the operations with 4 GB of RAM, they increased it to 16 GB and noticed that the number of SSD write operations and the total amount of written data both decreased.

"In essence, there is no such thing as too much memory in a desktop with solid-state storage," wrote Masiero and Roos."The more RAM you add, the better off endurance looks, and the more I/O performance you get from the storage subsystem."

Ensuring proper data disposal when switching to SSD drives

Swapping out an aging HDD for a new SSD, or moving information from one drive to another location via data archiving solutions, usually requires that the old storage medium be properly scrubbed of its data if it is no longer going to be used. By doing so, consumers and businesses prevent unwanted parties from accessing personal or corporate items on discarded drives.

San Jose Mercury News business reporter Steve Johnson examined the media sanitization guidelines formulated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In their guidebook, the NIST authors recommended that when discarding one computer for another or migrating data to new drives, users "disfigure, bend, mangle or otherwise mutilate the hard drive so that it cannot be reinserted into a functioning computer."

These measures, while seemingly extreme, are foolproof ways to eliminate items like credit card numbers or personally identifiable information. These pieces of data remain in stored files even after a user "deletes" them by dragging them to the desktop recycle bin or using the Delete key, and there is no consensus about the efficacy of drive-cleaning software or repeatedly overwriting old data with new.

"While experts agree on the use of random data, they disagree on how many times you should overwrite to be safe," wrote the authors of a report from U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness team, cited by Johnson. "While some say that one time is enough, others recommend at least three times."

When procuring a new SSD to upgrade computer performance, end users can consider destroying the old drive themselves with hardware tools and safety equipment. Before ensuring its destruction, they may want to use a Blu-ray burner to copy old data to a disc, or utilize an archiving solution.

Additional hard drive sanitization methods
Short of destroying the drive outright, there are several alternatives that may work. In The Courier-Journal, writer Kim Komando recommended formatting the drive by reinstalling Windows. However, this approach may not ensure complete data erasure, especially on high-capacity HDDs that have been heavily fragmented over time.

Komando also touted the power of drive-wiping software, but came to a similar conclusion as the NIST coordinators.

"If you don't need your hard drive anymore, physically destroying it is the best way to keep your data from falling into the wrong hands," she wrote. "I would still run the Boot And Nuke [erasure] program first, however."

Optical and SSD drives essential to business continuity, data protection

The costs of data backup and recovery are steadily rising as consumers and IT departments handle increasingly large volumes of information. While many rely almost exclusively on server-based solutions to store backups, they may be able to improve flexibility and reliability by diversifying into local and disc-based storage. To that end, a Blu-ray burner can create high-density backups for small businesses and individuals. At the same time, upgrading all machines to SSD drives may result in long-lasting and speedy storage, ultimately driving down costs and overhead by helping to ensure the safety and accessibility of data.

IT executives are under increasing pressure to reduce their division costs. According to an Enterprise Strategy Group survey cited by eWeek's Nathan Eddy, roughly two-thirds of IT departments reported that they have been urged to find ways to cut expenditures, mostly by improving efficiencies in backing-up and storing their company data. As organizations see growth in revenue, this impetus to find cost-effective storage and efficient data archiving solutions is magnified.

Seventy-five percent of ESG's respondents expected data volume growth of up to 20 percent, but more than half of them expressed some level of dissatisfaction with their current server-based backup models, which are often licensed and priced based on overall capacity rather than actual usage rates.

"[V]endors base their pricing on the volume of data protected," said ESG senior analyst Jason Buffington. "For IT users, this means that more data requires more backup servers, more licenses and increasing costs."

Discs and SSDs
In tandem with revised licensing models, disc-based backups, and usage of accessories like an external DVD drive on a slimline laptop or hybrid device, can provide alternative backup media for businesses and especially for consumers. In addition to serving as local storage that does not incur ongoing expenses, optical drives can also provide insurance against possible drive failure.

Writing for Gizmodo India, Andrew Tarantola noted that many PC OEMs no longer ship system restore discs with new machines, meaning that the user has to rely on Windows' built-in features. However, these safeguards cannot protect against common issues like data-destroying malware or HDD failure, meaning that users should probably opt for both an SSD and an extra optical drive to create backup discs of their own.

"[M]ost PC OEMs don't want to pay for it [a system restore disc] anymore," wrote Tarantola, later adding that  "burning the disc before your drive blows a motivator is the proper course of action."

PC market poised for rebound, but consumers must seek SSDs

The PC market has struggled recently due to consumer preference for lower-cost tablets and sophisticated smartphones, but it may be poised for a comeback in 2014. Users will increasingly return to laptops and desktops as they seek to finally upgrade older machines and improve their productivity with faster processors. Since PCs will be used more frequently for tasks like media playback, file transfer and video storage, buyers should opt for SSD drives for optimal performance. Aftermarket SSDs may be the best choice, since many OEMs are still shipping their PCs with middle and low-end HDDs in order to reduce costs.

Whether individuals have new or old PCs, they usually have tablets or other mobile devices to go with them. A recent IDC survey cited by Hot​ Hardware's Joel Hruska found that almost two-thirds of respondents had smartphones and 45 percent had tablets. The proliferation of these devices may have slowed the PC upgrade cycle. Still, nearly all respondents stated that a PC was their main computer and a better productivity tool than more mobile alternatives. Forty percent planned to upgrade their hardware within 12 months, likely because of mounting frustrations over slow load times, inadequate playback speeds or slow read/write storage speeds.

Aftermarket SSDs key to getting value from PC hardware
A commercial SSD drive is essential for users who need speedy performance while editing or transferring files like videos and dense optical disc images, but many buyers are not getting the storage that they need when they purchase inexpensive laptops. Many PCs still come equipped with 5,400 RPM HDDs, meaning that new hardware often offers only a modest improvement over previous models. Aside from mobile proliferation, this shortcoming may explain why consumers have been more measured in upgrading their PCs.

"If you've upgraded to an SSD from a hard drive, you know that it's one of the most important speed boosts you can get," wrote Hruska. "It delivers the feeling that jumping to a new processor used to offer. There's an enormous [benefit] associated with going SSD, but top-end laptops are actually getting slower as far as storage is concerned."

Procuring an aftermarket SSD drive for video may be key to getting the most of out a computer that comes equipped with an HDD, since manufacturers appear to be prioritizing cost over performance.

For users who also handle large quantities of photos, a Blu-ray burner or external hard drive may also be needed for reliable storage. Writing for Forbes, Tony Bradley noted that cloud-based solutions can help, but that some services throttle upload speeds. Local storage may be a valuable supplement to online backup.

Improvements to SSDs will help keep up with rising demand

Demand for SSD drives is so robust that it may begin to outrun supply, as businesses and consumers increasingly opt for speedy, reliable flash storage. With larger quantities of uncompressed video being stored on SSDs, drive manufacturers may also eventually optimize their products with more efficient vertical storage arrangements, higher density and price points that will lure buyers away from baseline HDDs.

Globally, demand for SSDs will rise to 78 million units per year in 2013, according to a Nomura study cited by PCR editor Dominic Sacco. That figure represents a 75 percent year-over-year increase. In addition to consumer interest in slimline laptops and mobile devices, corporations are also seeking more SSDs for their data centers.

"We are very optimistic about the growth in all SSD markets," said a data storage expert who spoke to Sacco. "It has been claimed many times that the market has reached a turning point for SSDs. Whilst this claim is hard to quantify, we are certainly seeing a very large upswing in demand for SSDs."

Price, capacity and performance going forward
In the short term, greater demand could mean a rise in SSD prices, although this spike may be temporary as manufacturers find ways to more efficiently use their NAND supplies via reduction of drive size and increased capacity.

Eventually, a commercial SSD drive may feature NAND cells less than 20 nanometers in width, which would allow for improved efficiencies in storage and power usage, according to IDG News Service contributor Stephen Lawson. To mitigate potential slowness from these highly dense clusters of miniature cells, manufacturers may turn to vertical groupings and software modifications. The key will be finding a way to reliably write data to increasingly smaller cells.

However, more affordable multilevel cell clustering may remain popular for a while as SSD makers seek to maintain price competitiveness with HDDs in the enterprise market. MLC can store multiple bits on one cell.

"These are by far the best means of achieving higher performance and lower latency," Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth said about refinements to SSD technology, according to Lawson. "You cannot get that, no matter what configuration, with a hard-drive-only approach."

SSDs now commonly feature high capacities, sometimes in the neighborhood of hundreds of gigabytes or terabytes, and their growing cost-effectiveness may make them more appealing than hybrid drives. Hybrids typically try to combine the low cost of HDDs with the fast performance of SSDs, but Lawson noted that they can struggle to assess which data needs to be in flash.