The future of data storage and cool gadgets.

Last updated: Nov. 18, 2007, 3:28 p.m.

I've been reading the news on slashdot about the amazing new solid state drives that are being released at the moment. However it wasn't until today when I went to one of my favourite on-line computer stores (actually looking at the page layout for inspiration for some html I was working on) when I saw this on the home page: Samsung 32GB 2.5" PATA drive. At last, not just talk or US only products, they have arrived here!

I will admit that the price is way too high for me to spend just to play with it at the moment but like all new technology we can expect that to fall pretty quickly. One of my house mates at Uni has just had his laptop hard disk fail on him, a mechanical failure of the read mechanism, and it's just that sort of thing that one of these solid state drives would solve. If it were my laptop I would seriously consider paying out for one of these solid state drives (SSD) because it would be a really handy excuse to get one.

The capacity seems a bit small still though I hear you say, only 32GB! Well on my laptop I only have a 40GB drive installed as it's over 3 years old now however I can't say I've ever run out of space on that drive for what I need, and certainly for the important things that you need to keep handy it's plenty of space. If you can't carry around your whole movie collection on your laptop does it really matter? I have an 8GB music collection on there and plenty of photos and documents and still have room for downloading DVD ISOs etc.

There are many advantages of the SSD, two of my favourite being that it's very low power compared with the regular spinning disk technology, because there are no motors to spin, and they are entirely silent! No moving parts means no sound from the drive at all no matter what it is doing. I have taken advantage of this in my latest server project, I built a backup server to store photos/important documents etc. Obviously for ease of access this sort of thing needs to be on most of the time ready for you to use it, however you don't want the noise of a bunch of big hard disks spinning away in the background all the time. Easy, spin the hard disks down when they're not in use! Although this should work in theory, in practice you often want your root partition running all the time for log files fiddling with configs etc. Infact the system I have built logs system temperature and voltages to file every 5 minutes and has a number of status web pages available all the time it is running which I can access from any browser on the network. However I have avoided two major annoyances by using an SSD for my root partition and swap space, I can have all these logging features running in the background without waking up the hard disks and I don't have any of the operating system files on the large hard disks which contain the actual backup data. The advantage of not having the OS on the backup drives is that the backup data is on a physically separate device, adding a whole extra layer of protection.

SSD on a budget

Now I bet you're all confused I started the article by saying that the first SSD I'd seen available in the UK was too expensive for me to play with, and then I went off on a rant about how awesome some server thing I've built is because it has a SSD, well there's a trick! My server has a pair of 500GB hard disks for the data backups (these two are mirrored copies of each other for extra security but that is unimportant for this article) however for the operating system there is a 4GB compact flash (CF) card. CF cards are a type of solid state storage that have been around for a while now, and hence are really fairly cheap. I believe the cheapest supplier of CF cards in the world is actually cheaper than dealers in Hong Kong according to some research one of my friends carried out in the summer. They sell a 4GB CF card for ~£18, combine this with a CF to IDE adapter from eBay that shouldn't cost much more than ~£5 and you have yourself a very cheap and very effective silent low power SSD big enough for a comprehensive server install.

A warning about the CF to IDE adapters available, I had a couple from eBay that were NOT DMA compatible. I was told by the sellers that it was not the adapter but my card which was at fault, they were however wrong. Even if the card doesn't support DMA it will give an appropriate response to a probe by the mother board to see whether it does or not, the adapters I got actually had no physical connection between the DMA pin on the IDE bus and the equivalent pin on the CF card socket. On one of the devices there was only one connection missing and I was able to solder a wire across to connect the missing link. So check and double check whether the card has all the DMA pins connected before deciding which one to get. On the whole the seller won't have a clue, I only figured it out because I was designing an IDE interface for a Z80 micro processor at the time with the intention of attaching a CF card to it. Having said all this, if you don't mind a bit of a lengthy boot time on Linux while the DMA status check times out then it won't be a problem because the kernel will eventually boot and access the card quite acceptably.

Another cool SSD based device

Another SSD based device which has grabbed my attention recently is the Asus EeePC, This device could have been taken straight out of my jotter from the start of sixth form about 4 years ago, when I wrote down the spec for a portable computer which I'd really like. It went something like this:

This is more or less the specification of the EeePC. It's a tiny Linux running x86 based laptop. It has a full keyboard, touchpad, three USB host sockets an external monitor port an SD card reader, wired and wireless (802.11a/g) networking, a 4GB solid state drive, a web cam built in high definition audio sound card with stereo speakers headphone out and mic in. All that is tied together around a 900MHz Celeron and 512MB DDR2 RAM and running a custom version of Xandros Linux. In summary probably the most awesome thing in the world! It has a 7" widescreen running at 800x480 which should be wide enough for most applications and make web browsing acceptable (remember when 800x600 was considered a high resolution compared to the standard 640x480?) all this has been squeezed into something no bigger than the classic programming text book (think of a For Dummies book, about that size). There is supposed to be a bigger version coming out with an 8GB SSD and probably a 10" screen and 1024MB RAM but the release for this is now scheduled for some unspecified time in 2008. Check out you tube for a really good video of what it can do, and a demonstration of how to get to additional tools like the full Synaptic package manager from which you can install pretty much anything from the Debian repository, although due to it's relatively low power you'll have to watch what apps you pick.

The thing can boot in under 30 seconds thanks to its SSD, a boot time I have not seen since last time I booted an Acorn, and that was because their operating system was stored in ROM like a PCs BIOS. The default application suite includes Firefox, OpenOffice, Skype and Penguin Racer (w00t!! openGL games!) amongst other Linux classics. Thanks to the fixed hardware specification, Wireless set up is rumoured to be very easy and quick which is still sadly unusual on Linux.

Hopefully by Christmas I will actually have one of these awesome little devices to do a proper review of and from which to update this site on the go!



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