Solid-State Drives: A Simple Solution for Solid Performance Gains
As Lynn Allen of Autodesk told me once, CAD users “feel the need for speed.” Working with CAD applications and data files, however, can sometimes make you feel like driving in rush-hour traffic. The bottleneck may be caused by your storage setup.
If you regularly open and close large applications and data files, and/or run other applications—email, Excel, a Web browser, etc.—in addition to CAD, there’s a good chance that a solid-state drive (SSD) could dramatically boost your performance.
Put simply, workstation CPUs can typically operate much faster than your storage can. Over time, your hard drive disk (HDD) capacity gets used up while your CPU remains underutilized, slowing you down in a major way. SSDs take advantage of this CPU capacity, enabling the computer to respond more quickly to commands. You’re now in the fast lane.
You can tell if your HDD is a limiting factor in your performance by checking your CPU utilization in Windows. Open Task Manager by right-clicking the taskbar. Then click Start Task Manager and click the Performance tab. To view more detailed information about your CPU utilization, click Resource Monitor at the bottom of the Performance tab. If your CPU only shows 10%, 15%, or even 50% utilization as you use your applications, you’ll want to consider replacing your HDD with an SSD.
Why is this the case? From 1996 through 2009, hard drive performance only increased 1.3 times, while CPU performance skyrocketed an amazing 175 times.
What’s needed is a storage device that meets the performance potential of the CPU, and that’s the promise of SSDs. According to Wes Shimanek, workstation product manager at Intel, an SSD could boost your workstation performance by up to 80%. While regular hard drives store data on magnetized platters spun by an electric motor, SSDs access and store memory in ways more similar to a microprocessor, giving them a speed advantage.
Check out this dramatic video.
It shows two workstations running a Multi-Pass Render Demo with Autodesk 3DS Max, a 3D modeling, animation, and rendering application for games, film, and television development. The workstation on the left, with a new 520 Series SSD from Intel, finishes the demo in 1:47. The other workstation, equipped with a 7,200 RPM HDD, was still painfully chugging away until 4:52.
In similarly dramatic fashion, Kolor, a developer of image-stitching solutions for panoramic photography, is using SSDs to process two times the amount of data 15 times faster. As company founder Alexandre Jenny explains, “We completed the Paris-26-gigapixels rendering in three hours and 14 minutes. Two years ago, it took 48 hours to render the Harlem-13-gigapixels.”
SSDs have similar implications for CAD users who want to execute tasks faster and accelerate product development cycles.
A Note about Performance Degradation
I’ve been cautious about SSDs because of reports about performance degradation in some units over time. Intel’s Crow addressed the issue with me, and asserts that “All SSDs aren’t created equal. We engineer to a high reliability and low annual failure rate that’s unique to our product line,” he says. “Our 99%+ success rate is even better than you get with regular HDDs.”
Another benefit, as noted in The SSD Review, is that SSDs don’t crash and take all your data like typical hard drives can. “SSD ‘end life’ simply means that it has reached its write total maximum and cannot be written to any further. The data retained on the SSD, however, is still readable and we don’t believe there is an expert yet who has tried to estimate the lifespan that the drive can be read from.”
It also can’t be denied that cost remains a limiting factor for many organizations. SSDs are in fact more expensive. While SSD prices are falling by about 50% per year, Intel acknowledges that it will be quite some time—if ever—before SSDs are as cheap as hard drives.
That said, time is money. If you have a workstation with a SATA interface and your CPU utilization is below 50%, I encourage you to test out the Intel 320 series or 510 series of SSDs that are currently available. The 520 series, featured in the video mentioned above, is due out later this year.
If you make the move to SSDs, or if you already have performance-related experiences with them, please be sure to let us know.