Posts Tagged ‘Hardware’

SSDs: are you experienced?

Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB[tweetmeme source=”KeithBluestone” only_single=false]First reaction after installing an Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB SSD boot drive in my custom-built Core i7-860 PC running Windows 7:  awesome.

While several times the cost per GB of conventional drives, an entry-level SSD will run many times faster, and I think  it’s the perfect companion for today’s high-end processors.  The days of using conventional boot drives are surely limited.

I noticed that there are a lot of sites pirating this article verbatim.  Here is a link to the original on SoftwareKeith.com… — Keith

Fast. Smooth. Quiet.

The SSD at US$250 (on NewEgg.com) was rather pricey for a single PC component — it cost as much as the Core i7-860 CPU itself.   But I knew almost immediately that it was the right decision: with the SSD installed, everything flies !  The system feels so “smooth,” like the hard drive and the processor are in sync.  Windows 7 Ultimate installed in about 10 minutes flat;  it boots in about 20 seconds.   Apps leap onto the screen again within a second or two.

My favorite readers will remember that after my very fast RAID-10 array died (see my last post), I had to run the Core i7 box off a single 7200 RPM drive for a while, which showed clearly that the hard drive was a performance bottleneck.

Formatted, the SSD has about 120GB of space.  After installing Windows 7 Ultimate and a handful of core applications (FireFox, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.), I still had over 90 GB free.   After some heavier installs – including Office Professional 2010, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 – there’s still well over 80 GB free.  That’s more than enough for most people to play with for quite some time.

Why SSD’s smoke conventional drives

imageIn a word (or two): access time.  The access time is how long it takes the storage device to read data.

For conventional drives, this involves waiting until the data on the spinning hard drive platter (right) rotates under the read head, positioning the read head arm to the correct track (radially), and reading the data from the platter.  Conventional desktop hard drives, even the best in the world, have access times of  4 to 8 milliseconds, which turns out to be an eternity for today’s processors.

The following analogy brings home the massive disparity between the speed of a modern processors and hard drives:

The first thing that jumps out is how absurdly fast our processors are…  reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar.  Waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months.
— “What Your Computer Does While You Wait,” Gustavo Duarte

As it turns out, most of the work done by an operating system involves reading a ton of little files, more or less “randomly” accessing the hard drive.   Thus, impressively fast sequential read or write speeds are not nearly as important as random access read speed.   Anand Lal Shimpi explains why, even though the cost per GB is so much higher, SSDs are worth it:

Measuring random access is very important because that’s what generally happens when you go to run an application while doing other things on your computer. It’s random access that feels the slowest on your machine.  Most hard drives will take closer to 8 or 9 ms in this test.  The fastest SSDs can find the data you’re looking for in around 0.1 ms. That’s an order of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drive on the market today.  [KB: it’s actually almost two orders of magnitude faster…]
— “The SSD Anthology: Why You Should Want an SSD,” AnandTech, March 2009

This explains my own experience:  even though my formerly alive RAID-10 array benchmarked faster than the Kingston SSD overall, with a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1100 to the SSD’s 950, the system feels so much quicker with the SSD – without the headaches of RAID-10.

This is why I’m now an SSD convert.

See with your own eyes

Watch the actual launch speed of a handful of common applications on my Core i7-860 below.  This screencast was done immediately after reboot, so no applications are pre-loaded or cached in memory.  Most apps load in about a second or so;  Outlook 2010 takes the longest, but since my mail archives are on a network share, the five or so seconds it takes to load includes accessing a remote filesystem.

Windows 7 Ultimate + Core i7-860 @ 3.3 GHz + Kingston V-Series SSD

Conclusion

The lowly old spinning-platter hard drive is the primary bottleneck in the modern computer.   Though pricey, an SSD is a perfect match for a today’s fast processors.

***

For those still reading…

Benchmarks are below – you can skip this section if you’re not interested in my technological prognostications.

I’ll make a bold prediction: as a boot drive, the SSD was so effective at speeding up my computer, I believe that within two years, they will become mainstream as boot drive choices.  With the ever-increasing capabilities of our processors, and the ever-increasing demands we put on our computers, it’s a perfect choice.

The default configuration would be be an SSD- or memory-based boot drive, on which the operating system and applications are installed, supplemented where necessary by a second, higher-capcacity legacy technology drive (you know, the ones that go ‘round and ‘round).

Intelligent OS storage architectures?

If we’re lucky, Microsoft will get inspired and allow seamless stitching of fast SSD and slow legacy storage in their next version of Windows.  This not-yet-invented technology would enable two drives – a fast, smaller SSD and a slower, larger conventional drive –  to be seen as a single logical storage partition. The OS would have the intelligence, for instance, to automatically install applications on the fast part and keep things like large images – when necessary – on the slower drive.  Why not?

imageWhile you’re at it, Microsoft: use that legacy hard drive for a completely automated, idiot-proof backup system. This would have one switch at the highest level: “back up my system” – or not.   Want to improve your “street cred” against upstarts Apple and Google?  Let no Windows user henceforth ever lose their data. It’s the right thing to do.

Let’s face it: the SSD could basically be considered just a fast hard drive cache. Caching technology and cache-hit optimization strategies are fairly well-understood, as are the dynamics of logical block translation in operating systems:  why should it be difficult to have the OS manage and optimize a hybrid storage array?

It turns out there already are “hybrid hard drives” or “HHD’s”.  See the Tech Report’s “Seagate Momentus XT: a hybrid for the masses?” and  Wikipedia’s entry on hybrid drives.  These drives blend flash memory and a conventional hard drive in one package.  Unfortunately, this is not as flexible as an OS-based implementation would be.

Benchmarks

I promised benchmarks…  many of course are out there on the web, but below are some from my computer.

PassMark’s Disk Mark measured the random seek performance of the SSD at 60% higher than the RAID-10 array (in MB/s):

2010.08_PerformanceTest_Disk_Mark_-_i7-860_and_Kingston_SSD

HD Tune clocks its read performance at 250 MB/s, stellar:

2010.08_Kingston_SSD_HD_Tune_Read

HD Tune’s file benchmarks show file reads and writes many times faster than the average drive (in MB/s):

image

Windows Experience Index scores it 6.8 out of…  7.9? Could anything be less clear than Microsoft’s own explanation?

image

More Reading

As it’s mid-2010, I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but…  who’s going to be ahead of Anand?  Regardless, it’s good to be here:

“For the past several months I’ve been calling SSDs the single most noticeable upgrade you can do to your computer. … Whenever anyone mentions a more affordable SSD you always get several detractors saying that you could easily buy 2 VelociRaptors for the same price. Allow me to show you one table that should change your opinion.”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Anthology,” March 2009

A few months later, Anand followed up this magnum opus with yet another:

“What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it. ”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Relapse: Understanding and Choosing the Best SSD,”  August 2009

Other links:

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New Core i7 PC: The Build

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Overviewimage82

Hello, folks… here’s a long overdue post on my Core i7 build.   I actually built two quad-core i7-860 computers with the hardware selection detailed in this post: one for me, and one for my father-in-law, who does video editing and production.

In general, both custom builds went without a hitch.  However, there are a few points of advice that might save you a few hours if you’re planning to build your own custom PC.

The builds took, surprisingly, much longer than I thought:  about six hours each.  This includes thoroughly cleaning out each old case, as well as taking pictures of the “build experience.”  It also includes cleanly routing and tying off all the various cables in the case, for a tidy presentation – as well as better airflow. 

I also installed an aftermarket heat sink on my father-in-law’s system, which took about an hour.  I highly recommend a heat sink — more on that below.

After double-checking the all the motherboard connectors a final time — hard drive, video, fans – I sat back and paused for a moment of reflection – then hit the power button.   On each build, the system started right up without any hitches –much to my relief.

Build notes

Note to first-time builders: it is critically important that you take measures to prevent damage to sensitive electronics components from static electricity.  Simply walking across the room can build up thousands of volts of static. 

See “Avoid Static Damage to Your PC” (PC World) for tips.

For both builds, I re-used the existing case, after gutting them of old motherboard and components.  Then I gave them them a thorough cleaning – unable to bear putting the elite processor and beautiful new components in an dusty, dirty case.    

I took it slow and enjoyed the whole process of building the new system.  Everything pretty much only fits in one way, so as long as you don’t force anything, you’re good.    

Bottom of Intel stock CPU coolerThe only real issue I had was some angst over the proper seating of the stock Intel cooling fan (right) on the i7-860 processor:  it wasn’t especially clear when the fan assembly was seated properly and securely on the motherboard.  Since direct contact on the processor is essential for cooling, it seems like this part of the process should be more foolproof.  

Lessons Learned

Get a CPU cooler up front. Through the magic of overclocking, you can leverage your investment in the entire system and make your system run like it had a much more expensive, faster processor in it.  The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard I selected comes with automatic overclocking software takes me up to 3.6 GHz (from 2.8 GHz on a stock i7-860). That’s about a 30% performance boost. 

But with frequency and voltage comes heat.  You could really make the system smoke…  literally, if you’re not careful.  Why take chances cooking the silicon wafer at the heart of your high-tech monster?  You spent around $1,000 for your new system, all told; but for a mere $35 to $70, an aftermarket cooler will enable you to safely overclock your system to run around 30% faster.  That’s 30% return on 3.5% to 7% investment, as I see it – pretty much a no-brainer.  In addition, to future-proofing and fire-proofing your box, it’s a great value.

The strong consensus on the forums, Cooler Master Hyper 212which matched my own experience, is that the stock Intel cooler is really not up to the task of cooling an overclocked i7.   After some research, I selected the Cooler Master Hyper 212 (right) for a very affordable $35 – highly rated and available on Amazon.

Note: the Cooler Master Hyper 212 is an impressive-looking piece of finned hardware, but has horrible install instructions — NewEggers agree.  Where are the Cooler Master folks??  It’s a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing.

Configure RAID up front. if you’re planning on using the onboard Intel Matrix raid, set up the RAID array before installing the operating system – even if you only intend to use a simple mirror (RAID-1).  

The Intel Matrix RAID bios is apparently, unbelievably incapable of simply mirroring one existing, data-containing drive onto another identical, blank drive!  (Why, Intel, why?!)   So the mirror setup – at least in the BIOS — requires the destruction of all info on both drives.   Sad smile  

I had to suck it up, create the mirror, and reinstall Windows 7.  Good thing I have a fast machine.  Winking smile

Case design. Consider investing in a good case.  I can now see why good case design is important… I always thought of a case as just a case, but in this case (no pun intended) I see what excellent design features it can add.  My father-in-law’s Antec case has a solid, heavy metal frame, with beautiful lacquered silver paint and a latching ez-swing-out side panel for access to the interior.  It has two convenient pop-out hard drive cages for a total of four 3.5” bays, as well as easy front-slide-out bays for 5.25” equipment like the DVD drives.   This makes it very easy to remove or change components.  It also has wiring for front case USB and firewire connectors.

You can go cheap on cases, for sure;  but consider a cooler, higher-end case if it’s only a few more bucks.   Go ahead, you deserve it.

IMG_2990The front slide-out 5.25 bays on the great Antec case

Build #1

This is my personal system;  I built it first so that I would be able to apply any lessons learned to my father-in-law’s build.    Its highlight is an extremely quick 1TB RAID-10 hard drive array (mirror of stripes) built on of four Seagate Barracudas.  I re-used an existing, older Antec 430W power supply.

Ingredients:

  1. Core i7-860 Processor $250
  2. ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard $150
  3. 4 x Seagate Barracuda ES.2 ST3500320NS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA New $600, street today ~$350?
  4. XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card $65
  5. G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM $115
  6. LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player $25
  7. Antec True Power 430W power supply

Total outlay:  ~$600.   This doesn’t include the cost of the enterprise-class hard drive, power supply, or case.

Build #2

This system is for my father-in-law,who is replacing a 2004-era Pentium 4 box very similar to my Dell PowerEdge 400SC.    Following my own best practices, I built it with two hard drives in a mirror array (RAID-1) so that a single hard drive failure will not be able to take the system down: for the extra $100, well worth it.    Since this system will be used for video editing, it has a much more capable graphics card, the XFX Radeon HD 4850, which is a dual-slot monster.

Blend together and serve over crushed ice the following:

Total cost: ~$1,000, not including case

Installation Checklist

After installing Windows 7 (64-bit), these were the major post-OS software installs that I did to get the systems up to speed:

  • ASUS drivers from mobo DVD:  chipset, lan, Intel Matrix, USB, etc.  link
  • ASUS utilities from mobo DVD: Turbo EVO, etc – CHECK
  • Update Radeon drivers via Device Manager
  • FireFox v3.6 – my preferred browser
  • Internet Explorer 8 – for completeness
  • Run Windows update
  • 7-Zip
  • LastPass
  • Picasa
  • Avast AntiVirus – free