Storage is one of those technologies that gets lost in the shuffle. New CPUs with their ever higher clock speeds and GPUs with their increased processing power dominate the headlines to the point that it’s easy to overlook how much storage technology has changed over the past decade. As I walked through the booths at NAB, I gained a better understanding of just how far storage has come, and I got to look a bit into the future of desktop storage.
This week, I’d like to take a look at the state of desktop storage by looking at what’s available today. With so many options it’s easy to get confused, so I’ll recommend some options based on what I’m seeing in the custom workstation market. Storage is like any other industry where higher-end options start out in the most expensive systems, but trickle down into desktops and workstations over time. Let’s get started.
The old reliable (mostly) mechanical drive is still alive and well, but it often plays a different role than it has for many decades. Besides being widely supported, mechanical drives still provide the highest gigabyte per dollar available. You can purchase 6 and 8 TB drives from Western Digital and others for under $400 today. They still work well in RAID arrays and, if speed isn’t paramount, they are a reliable storage option for those on a budget. They are still supported by SATA and SCSI buses which makes them a good choice when paired with older motherboards.
The trusty mechanical drive lives on but in new roles
What I don’t see a lot anymore are mechanical drives being used as a primary storage medium, at least in laptops, desktops and workstations. That role has largely been conceded to SSDs, although mechanical drives are still a popular secondary storage option. But even that role has been diminished to a degree due to the rise of cloud storage. They are still widely used in personal NAS devices because they are affordable and easy to replace.
I won’t predict their demise anytime soon because I’ve been around long enough to witness many seemingly “outdated” technologies reinvent themselves.
Recommended uses: Inexpensive desktops, workstations with massive storage needs, single-user NAS devices, secondary storage.
Solid State Drives (SSD)
The new kid on the block is looking a lot more familiar these days as his role in computing has taken on more significance. If you’ve been around a while, you’ll probably recall the cloud of confusion surrounding the first SSDs on the scene. Many questioned their reliability, high cost, puny storage. They became the sexy, if expensive, choice of enthusiasts and gamers who weren’t put off by those negatives and just wanted pure drive speed.
Most workstations we built at Puget Systems about three years ago were configured with an SSD as the primary boot drive accompanied by a slew of mechanical drives to accommodate programs and files. SSDs were too small and expensive to take over as the primary storage choice back then. But over the years, prices have come down significantly as Intel, Samsung and others have released new models with large capacities. The first SSD I installed in my Windows PC was 60 GB, and it was barely large enough to hold Windows and a few utilities. Two years later, I installed a 500 GB SSD for the same price as the old 60 GB.
Once you install an SSD as a boot drive, you will never want to go back to a mechanical drive because not only does your computer boot much faster, but programs launch faster and feel a lot more responsive. Professionals working with large files in products like Adobe Lightroom, Premiere or Photoshop, benefit greatly from SSDs, even if they must use an external NAS to archive their projects.
Today SSDs are used as primary boot drives in desktops, laptops, workstations and servers, and they can be placed in RAID (mostly RAID 1 or 0) for even more performance. They come in both consumer and enterprise models and support those same SATA channels found on most motherboard still in use. But those same ubiquitous SATA channels are the weak links when it comes to performance so even the fastest SSDs top out around 500 MBs in testing due to SATA’s 600 Mbps ceiling.
Recommended uses: Boot drive in laptops, desktops, workstations and servers. Primary storage for those who don’t have heavy storage demands or use cloud storage.
Here’s where things start to get really interesting. Because SATA 3 topped out around 600 Mbps, we needed a faster, more modern bus on which faster drives could be accommodated. As luck would have it, one such bus had already been created and was part of most modern motherboards: PCI-Express or PCI-E. PCI-E is the underlying data transport layer for graphics and other add-on cards, as well as Thunderbolt. There are various generations of PCI-E, but suffice it to say they are capable of handling drives from about 985 MBps to nearly 4 GBps. That’s a 2 to nearly 8 fold increase over the SATA 3 bus.
M.2 drives are probably the most unassuming storage media I’ve ever seen. In fact, many people won’t know the difference between an M.2 drive and a stick of RAM. But M.2 drives are hot running speed demons, and that can make them challenging to cool. You’ll find M.2 drive support in high-end laptop models as well as desktop and workstation motherboards such as the Asus Z170-A and Asus X99 Deluxe.
M.2 drives like the Samsung 850 Pro can reach a staggering 2.2 GB/s read and 900 MB/s write speeds
M.2 drives aren’t without a few downsides. In addition to commanding a price premium over standard SSDs, they run very hot and require proper case cooling or they will throttle down to prevent overheating which can reduce performance by 60%. Also, only the latest motherboards support M.2 so you can’t add them to older boards. But you’re in for a real treat if your workflow demands sheer read and write speeds, and you have the hardware to support one.
Recommended uses: High-end laptops, workstations with proper cooling and demands for speedy storage.
NVMe PCI-E SSD
With speeds similar to M.2 drives the NVMe (Non-Volatile Host Controller Interface Specification) PCI-E SSD are the latest in storage technology that run over PCI-E lanes. The drive is closer to the CPU from an electrical standpoint, making it much faster and simpler than competing drives. Of course, this comes at a higher cost compared to standard SSDs, but the speeds these drives can reach is amazing. They can reach 2,400 MB/s maximum read speeds and 1,200 MB/s for writes. Models such as the popular Intel 750 lines are enterprise-grade and rated up to 440,000 IOPS for random reads and 290,000 IOPS for writes.
You’ll need a modern motherboard with support for PCI-E 3.0 in order to take advantage of these drives, and they take up a PCI-E slot in your system, but they worth it for those looking for the latest in speedy storage. You can put them in older PCI-E 2.0 slots, but you’ll see about a 40% drop in read speeds.
Do you really need a drive that fast? It depends.
If you’re working with large files or you work with video that renders locally, these drives make a lot of sense because they drastically reduce the amount of time you’re waiting around for your computer. If you’re doing email, browsing the web or editing Word files all day, they are absolutely overkill. They are expensive and can been finicky in terms of BIOS support too, and only the newest boards will allow you to boot directly to an NVMe drive. My recommendation is to stick with the Intel brand for now, as much as I know that’s going to ruffle a few feathers out there. Intel charges a bit more, but their 750 series is incredibly reliable.
Recommended uses: Workstations for content creators who work on large files or render video or 3D models. Those who demand the fastest, most reliable storage on the market today.
Local storage technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. I’m sure we’re going to see new motherboards that support the fastest drives such as M.2 and NVMe as well as other bus technologies that bring storage closer to the CPU in terms of circuitry and proximity. It can take a few years before new technology gains a foothold in the market, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see M.2 or NVMe give way to even faster, less expensive options.
But today, we have more storage options than ever before. And that’s great for everyone.