My Move to Solid State
I love small laptops. If you ask any of my friends, they will tell you that even a laptop with a 12" screen, no matter how cool, is just too big for me. My very first laptop was a Toshiba Libretto 50CT, which was around the size of a VHS tape (for those of you who remember those), and from there, I have progressed through the Fujitsu P series with a P2110, P7010 and now a P1610—an 8.9" ultra-portable tablet. I use this laptop as my primary machine with few complaints, but when I made the jump to a tiny 8.9" tablet from my old 10.6" sub-notebook, I also had to drop from a 2.5" to a 1.8" hard drive.
For me, especially at first, a 1.8" hard drive wasn't the end of the world. Even though I had upgraded to 5400rpm drives on my other laptops, to me, the decrease in size for the overall laptop was worth any drop in performance. Plus, until recently, it wasn't like I had much choice: 1.8" drives maxed out at 4200rpm. Then I heard about solid state drives. Unlike a traditional hard drive that relies on a head and a spinning platter, solid state drives act more like Flash storage you might use in your camera or on a USB key. Not only are there no moving parts to wear out and much faster seek times, the 1.8" solid state drives I saw touted faster sustained read and write times as well.
Although I have read a number of benchmarks and anecdotes about solid state drives, it always seemed like a mixed bag. Windows users talked about much faster startup times and better overall responsiveness, while the Mac reviews I read seemed to indicate the difference in performance was minimal. I didn't see too many benchmarks about Linux systems, and with the high price tag of solid state drives, I went back and forth on which price point I was willing to pay.
One day I decided to take the plunge and bought a 1.8" Samsung solid state drive for my laptop. In the process, I have taken some comparison benchmarks between my old drive and my new solid state drive. Although statistics can be handy, I decided to take a more tangible approach to my comparisons. I used some standard benchmark tools, but the majority of my comparisons deal with everyday tasks to give you a better idea of what it's really like to have a solid state drive on a Linux system.
First, I should tell you what hardware is being compared. All tests were run on my trusty Fujitsu P1610. It has an Intel 1.2GHz ULV Core Solo processor with 1GB of RAM and is running Ubuntu 7.10. The original hard drive was a 4200rpm Toshiba MK6006GAH, and I am comparing it to a Samsung MCBOE32G8APR solid state drive. When reasonable, I tried to run tests multiple times so I could get an average reading; however, just so you know, most of the tests ended up being pretty consistent between tries. Also, when necessary I rebooted the machine before performing follow-up tests so that any files Linux might have cached into RAM would not affect the results.
For the first test, I used a stopwatch to time how long it took the system to go from the GRUB boot prompt to my login screen. Depending on how you use your laptop, you may boot it every day, or you may hibernate or suspend between uses. In either case, a slow boot time can be painful when you want to get right to work. The boot process is both disk- and processor-intensive, but even so, when comparing the results, you'll see a significant difference:
4200rpm: 50 seconds
SSD: 34 seconds
The next logical test is the time it takes from your login to a usable desktop. For my laptop, I use the default desktop environment that comes with Ubuntu (GNOME), but I also have terminals, applets and Firefox all launching at startup. As a result, my numbers might differ a bit from yours, but they give a good sense of the difference between the two drives:
4200rpm: 59 seconds
SSD: 23 seconds
Wow. Although I knew to a degree that it took some time for my desktop to come up with the old hard drive, I didn't realize until this test that it actually took almost an entire minute! By comparison, the SSD took less than half the time, in part due to the increased read speed and the much faster seek times, especially when loading files at random (see the bonnie++ test below to corroborate this). So far, the SSD is looking pretty good. If you combine both tests, the 4200rpm drive took 109 seconds—almost two minutes—to go from the GRUB prompt to a usable desktop, and the SSD took 57 seconds—almost half the time.
Kyle Rankin is a VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin.