Posts Tagged ‘RAID’

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 Experience

 image82image202image162image282image68image242

First Impressions

Where we last left off, I had tightened the last Phillips-head screw on the last hard drive, double-checked all the power connectors, and sat back for a moment of reflection after five hours of PC assembly. 

The moment of truth had arrived:  I pressed the power button. 

The fans jumped and spun, the motherboard flashed green and amber lights, and the hard drives ticked and began their soft whining climb up to a cruising speed of 7200 RPM.   The whole system settled into a muted whirr — not too loud, I thought, even with the case still open. 

Now – on to the operating system.

Software installation: like butter

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bittook only about five minutes from beginning to end for a complete install from DVD.  It turns out that on this new PC, everything installs with whiplash.  The entire Microsoft Office 2007 Professional suite took only about five minutes as well.    Kudos to Microsoft for their single-click OS install.  I like it.

If you recall, Windows XP required an inordinate amount of babysitting, popping up every few minutes to ask a silly question.  Yes, why couldn’t they ask *after* the install??

For a while, I ran around, downloading and chucking installations of must-have software into the maw of this beast:  FireFox, Picasa (image management), Avast!(antivirus), 7-Zip, Windows Live Writer (blogging), and so on.   It felt a little like I was tossing branches into a tree shredder.  Everything happened at breakneck speed – and no matter what I was doing, I could run off to do something else in another window, with no slowdown. 

We love multiple independent cores. 

Fast, redundant storage

In addition to the fabulous quad-core i7-860, I set this system up with a fast rear end: a RAID-10 “mirror of stripes” hard drive array.   The P7P55D-E motherboard has onboard Intel Matrix RAID, so I used the BIOS to set up a RAID-10  array of 4 x 500GB enterprise-class Seagate Barracuda SATA drives (“NS” class), for a total of near a terabyte of redundant, striped storage.  

This setup achieved a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1060 with a sequential read of 150 MB/s and sequential write of 133 MB/s.   I was pleasantly surprised it ranked within the Top 20 of “High End Hard Drives” (as of July 2010), besting a passel of SSD offerings from Crucial, Kingston, OCZ, and Intel.  

Fullscreen capture 762010 120658 PM

 

Fullscreen capture 762010 120602 PM

So I ended up with fast, reliable storage that beats almost anything out there in the consumer/desktop space, including a lot of SSD’s – with 7200 RPM SATA drives!  SSD’s are around 3x to 5x the cost for the same storage, anyway.

Editorial opinion: At the time of this writing, SSD’s are still too expensive for general use at around US$2.50/GB, as compared to the cost of conventional spinning hard drives at around $0.75/GB.   That’s a premium of three times the cost.  But there’s no doubt that SSD’s will eventually replace today’s hard drives.  Now, they’re most effective as OS boot drives.   Related:  “Personal computers pre-configured with SSD drives?” on Philip Greenspun’s weblog.

Warning: RAID-10 arrays are not for the faint of technical heart.  They can be temperamental beasts, requiring rebuilding and “revalidation”  much more often than I would like.  The effect of this is more psychological than anything else:  I have never lost data with this array, but I can’t say it’s been completely maintenance-free.   There’s no real reason why they need to be so fidgety – it seems like the issues are mostly software ones:  I’m less than impressed with Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager, now rebranded as Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology (RST).   It’s so hard to see or understand what’s really going on with the array: what behavior the hard drives are exhibiting, or what even things like “verification” and “ media errors” are.  Intel guys, please read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things!  

Eight cores of goodness

If there was one thing which viscerally brought home the raw power of this new computer at my beck and call, it was this image from the Task Manager showing a full eight cores available to Windows:

Task Manager showing eight cores
Cores, glorious cores!

We really only have four physical cores — hence the “quad-core” processor designation — but eight cores appear to the only through the magic of hyperthreading.  It’s is kind of like cheating — but sometimes it’s not.    

Hyperthreading is a technique whereby the processor design can take advantage of wait states in multithreaded applications to make a single physical core perform almost as well as two cores. 

Let there be light

Beyond the installs, everything opens almost instantly.  Frequently used apps like FireFox 3.6, Outlook 2007, Microsoft Word 2007, and Picasa seem to leap onto the screen when called.  Even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is so painfully slow I switched a few years ago to FireFox (love it), opens its fat self within two seconds.

Ironically, one of the slowest applications to load is the one I’m writing this post in:  Windows Live Writer (Build 14.0.8117.416).   It seems to take forever to load, sometimes up to 20 seconds, even when I haven’t even told it to open a blog post!  I’m convinced that this is a classic data access strategy problem:  it’s hitting the web (my blog) on startup, even though (a) I didn’t ask it to open anything and (b) the designers should have cached all blog info locally, and quietly checked or re-loaded it on a background thread.   Windows Live Writer team: you officially have my permission to use any of the other seven threads that are available on my i7-860.  (Love your software, it’s the best.)  

With 4 GB of RAM, easily expandable to 8 GB, I no longer had to keep mental tabs on how many apps I had open: it didn’t matter.  I could have eight FireFox sessions with thirty tabs open (total); Microsoft Word, Picasa, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, TweetDeck, Windows Media Player; all open at the same time.  It didn’t matter. The box handled it easily.  

Overclocking

One of the reasons I chose a custom build vs. an off-the-shelf buy was to play with overclocking.  And, being a red-blooded American male, I just wanted to see how fast it could run.  Fortunately, Asus includes a handy, idiot-proof overclocking utility made just for folks like me, called Turbo EVO.  

Turbo EVO offers several ways to effortlessly overclock your system: CPU Level Up, which lets you choose from several levels, from “Fast” to “Crazy,” and TurboV AutoTuning, which through a series of reboots will tune your system to the maximum safe speed possible.  

The fastest I got my system to without really trying too hard (I selected the Extreme Tuning mode) was 3.66 GHz.   This put my system in the top ten fastest high-end CPUs in the world, according to the PassMark website.  

Fullscreen capture 772010 41723 PMUnfortunately, I did not install a CPU cooler the first time around (recommended).  When I downloaded and ran the Prime95 CPU torture test, the Asus TProbe utility complained as the CPU temperature rose from around 40 C to 70C, then 75C, then… I stopped it at 80 C.  Surely I should check before I subject the 45nm silicon to temperatures above the boiling point.  (Answer:  keep it at around 70 C or less.)

Tip: choose and install a CPU cooler with your build.  Most coolers require the motherboard to be out of the chassis for installation.

Since the box ran so fast anyways, I had no problem dialing back to stock speeds until I had a heat management solution in place.  After some research, I chose the very popular and effective Cooler Master Hyper212; unfortunately, I had to tear the system down to the motherboard to install it. 

Energy consumption profile

At stock settings of 2.8 GHz (i.e. not overclocked), this Core i7-860 build drew around 110 watts at idle, proving to me that reusing my Antec 430W True Power supply was an appropriate choice.  

Overclocked to 3.36 GHz via CPU Level Up, “Crazy” setting – my current everyday setting — the system draws about 150W during normal operation, and peaks at about 290W during a Prime95 run. 

Considering that’s about the amount of energy used to power a light bulb or two, I thought this was a pretty good use of watts.  In addition, my other two Dell servers draw about 100-110W each, and they run ten times slower.   

Energy efficiency was one of the reasons I decided to invest in the latest chip technology;   see Evaluating PC computing hardware.

Conclusion

Easy build, great system, love it. 

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

Going digital: the cost of photo storage

Summary

imageStoring photos costs next to nothing. 

You can take over twelve (12) high-resolution, properly backed up digital photos for a single penny.  

For the cost of a Starbucks latte, with tip, you can take around five thousand (5,000) high-res shots.  

Snap away

So not only should you feel free to go wild taking pics – you can also go digital for next to nothing, and free yourself from reams of paper documents every year.  

What’s the catch?   You have to make sure they’re backed up, and you have to learn to use photo management software (e.g. Google’s Picasa). 

Back story

I’ve enjoyed digital photography since 2001, when I got my first digital camera, a Nikon CoolPix 950.  I loved this little camera:  it had a cool swivel-body design and felt great in my hands. 

I ended up taking 10,000 shots with it in the first year.    Nikon Coolpix 950

Since then, I have upgraded to a Canon EOS-20D (a digital SLR and a fantastic camera) and, for around-the-house and other daily subjects, a conveniently small Canon SD1100IS, also highly recommended. 

My current DSLR is a Canon EOS-20DSomewhere around 2006, with the debut of Google’s free – and extremely easy to use – Picasa photo management software, I realized that snapping a quick picture of a paper document was an easy way to preserve it.  

Instead of makingimageand filing paper copies of my company expense reports, I snapped digital pictures of them and tagged them in Picasa as “expense reports.”   

Instead of filing auto repair bills, I snapped and tagged.   And so on.

Today, the only paper documents I keep are official legal documents, such as car titles and signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).   The rest are on my computer’s hard drives as digital photos – backed up and archived as well. Picasa’s incremental search enables me to find any tagged photo in seconds. 

I love being paperless now.     

From time to time, I wondered about the “real” cost of all these digital photos.  It was cheap, I knew — but exactly how cheap was it?   Could I take photos at high resolutions like eight megapixels, or should I downsize to save space? 

I decided to find out.  

Figuring the storage cost of a photo

If you’re not interested in technical number-crunching related to figuring the cost of storage, you can skip to the next section.

I’m not even going to consider the cost of the electricity needed to power the camera or the computer:  it’s surely almost nothing.  (Maybe a helpful reader will do the math?)  Nor am I going to consider the cost of the camera, since that’s a personal choice.   

Hard drive detail

Instead, the cost of a digital photo is simply the cost of the hard drive space needed to store it.   Here are some conservative assumptions of the cost of disk space in a personal computer (all currencies in U.S. dollars):

Cost of 1 terabyte (1 TB = 1,000 GB) of hard drive space = $100.  
Easy to find terabyte drives at this price point or below.

Cost of 1 gigabyte (1 GB = 1,000 MB) of storage = $0.10 = one dime.   
Just ten cents per raw gigabyte!  That is amazing to me.  

Now that we know the cost of raw hard drive storage, we need to make some assumptions about the size of each photo. Then we can simply divide one into the other to get the cost per photo: 

Size of a high-resolution (8 MP) photo is five megabytes (5 MB).   
I got this figure by looking at some actual JPEG photos I took with my Canon EOS-20D.  Since JPEG is a compressed format, picture sizes will vary for different subjects, but this seems like a reasonable, conservative number.

Now we can calculate the raw storage cost of a digital photo:

Cost of a high-resolution digital photo is $0.0005 = 1/20th of a penny.
To get this, I multiplied $0.10 per GB storage cost by  0.005 GB (that’s 5 MB for a photo).  

Put another way, you can take 20 high-resolution pictures for a single penny.

So there’s our first answer: twenty photos for a penny, or an amazing two thousand photos for a dollar.   That’s insanely inexpensive!  

But hold on – as with many things, reality is just slightly more complex.  

Figuring total cost of ownership (TCO)

For a more accurate storage cost, we should really account for storing multiple copies of our pictures.    In reality, we don’t just take the photos and store them on a single hard drive;  they need to be backed up. too.   A good rule of thumb is that anything worth preserving should be saved in at least three places.  

With only a single backup (the “originals” and a backup copy), if your primary hard drive fails or is otherwise compromised (drenched, burned, stolen, etc), you have to cross your fingers and hope that your single backup copy is good.   Not pleasant.

To protect against a single hard drive failure – namely, the hard drive on which you store your precious photos, as well as a lot of other stuff – you can set up a mirrored drive configuration (RAID-1).   Everything the system writes to a mirrored hard drive, it also writes at the same time to a second hard drive (the mirror), maintaining the two as exact copies of each other.   I use RAID mirroring on all my storage drives and highly recommend it.   Unfortunately, RAID is a slightly advanced technology – you may want to ask your favorite tech buddy for help getting started with it.  

So let’s assume that for every hard drive you buy, you’ll buy at least another two for backup, mirroring, and/or archival.   

But this still isn’t completely accurate:  it models cost as if the photos were “paying for” the entire hard drive.  In reality, the hard drive is shared: with the operating system (e.g. Windows OS, Mac OS, etc.), with installed applications, and generally with a number of  other, non-photographic data like documents and databases.   (Hopefully you are backing all this up, too.)  Accordingly, if we discount the cost of the hard drive space by something reasonable like 50%, then photo storage becomes even less expensive (twice as cheap).  

With this updated and more realistic model of keeping three copies of our photos around and sharing the “cost model” of storage within the computer, we now get:

Cost per PHOTO gigabyte (1 GB = 1,000 MB) of storage = $0.05 = one nickel.   
Divide the raw storage cost of $0.10 per GB by two to discount it. 

Storage needed for a 8 MP photo is fifteen megabytes (15 MB).   
Since we always want three copies around, we multiply the photo size (5 MB) by three.

And now we can divide one into the other to find out the “real cost” per digital photo: 

“Real cost” of a persistent high-resolution digital photo is $0.00075 = ~1/12th of a penny.
To get this, I multiplied $0.05 per GB storage cost by  0.015 GB (that’s 15 MB) per photo stored in triplicate.    “Persistent” is used here in the software engineering sense of “can or will not go away easily.”

So if there’s any bad news, it’s that the real cost of a digital photo is really a little more than what we calculated initially as the “raw storage cost.”    The good news is that a little more than “incredibly small” is still incredibly small:  we can take about twelve “persistent” photos for a penny.

Life is good.

Conclusion

Any way you cut it, photo storage is super-cheap!    What does this mean in our everyday life?

We can take twelve eight-megapixel photos for a penny.    That’s twelve hundred high-resolution, doubly backed up digital photos for, oh, about a buck. 

For the price of one Starbucks grande cappuccino, dry, with tip ($4), we can take and store almost five thousand high-resolution photos.   If it’s pretty, take a picture of the cappuccino, too.   

Latte art

Five thousand photos per year is about fourteen per day, every day.   Or about one hundred photos every weekend of the year.  

Five thousand high-resolution pictures will still only consume about 25 GB of primary hard drive space.  This is only a few percent of today’s desktop drives, which are 1,000 GB  (1 TB) and rising in size. 

The incremental cost of digital pictures is almost zero.  You have already sunk big dollars into the camera, the computer, and its hard drives.   Using digital photos to capture anything now costs almost nothing, whether it’s your kid drooling on the rug or every bleedin’ piece of paper that you would have filed somewhere, only to never, ever be able to find it when you need it…. 

So snap away!   If you do decide to go digital, just make sure that you back it all up.   The only question about hard drive failure is:  when?

Six failed hard drives    Think it won’t happen?  Here’s six
of my hard drives that failed.


On digitizing documents…

Don't be like thisI’ve had flatbed scanners over the years, and although I will admit it’s been a while, I don’t like them nearly as well as digital cameras for capturing documents.  

For one, a scanner is another piece of hardware to buy and maintain.  Number two, it’s another piece of software to figure out and run when you want to scan.   Thirdly, a scanner takes up valuable desk space.   And finally, a digital camera is extremely portable and can be used anywhere to “capture” a document.

To capture a paper document with a digital camera, I simply take a picture of it, making sure to include the entire document — you can always crop it later.   I try to use a flash whenever possible to minimize movement and shadow; it also makes text sharper.  Then every so often, I transfer the images to my computer and “tag” them in Picasa (e.g. “expense report” or “financial” or “bill”) so that I can find them almost instantly in the future. 

More reading…
  • Backup Tips IOMega.com
    A good primer: “A comprehensive data backup strategy is vital to your data security. Too many people wait until disaster strikes before they think about a backup. A good backup is an excellent way to protect against viruses, deteriorating hard drives, disasters and human errors. If it would not be cost effective or even possible to re-enter data, then you need a backup strategy.
  • Introducing Picasa 3  A video tutorial by Google on YouTube
    If you don’t currently use photo management software, Picasa is an excellent, free starting point.   The install is painless – try it today at Picasa.com!
  • What’s new in Picasa 3.5  Another video tutorial from Google on YouTube
  • How to store digital photos  PhotoShelter.com
    A good look at issues, cost, capacity planning, and total cost of ownership for the beginner all the way up to professional photographers.
  • Mozy.com  
    If you’re not backing up yet, this is a cheap, free, and painless way to get started.  Mozy is very easy to use, just download the software and follow the basic instructions.
  • Digital photography Wikipedia
    "Almost all of the cost of digital photography is capital cost, meaning that the cost is for the equipment needed to store and copy the images, and once purchased requires virtually no further expense outlay.”