PATA is a PITA (and other thoughts on SSD)

A couple months ago I started gathering components to build myself a new workstation. One of the components I got to try is an Intel X25-V 40GB solid-state disk (SSD). That particular part has since been discontinued, but at that time it was $100. That's pretty pricey as compared to a conventional hard disk of the same size, but would be completely worth it if it provided the performance benefit I expected.

It performed as well as I hoped. I set it up with Kubuntu Linux 10.10, and was completely blown away by the speed-up in boot time.

As great as it was on the workstation, this device was just screaming to be put in a laptop. After all, my workstation gets booted once a season. I can cycle a laptop a dozen times in an afternoon.

The workstation project has been stuck on idle, but I've become increasingly enamored with the laptop idea.

My five year old laptop, unfortunately, uses an old-style parallel ATA (PATA) hard drive, where most laptop drives made these days (including SSDs) are serial ATA (SATA). I was able to find one PATA SSD over at NewEgg for under $100, but it was only an 8GB drive. Even if that was enough space, that's an absurdly bad MB/$ value.

I even researched using an adapter that provides a fixture to use a Compact Flash (CF) memory as an IDE hard disk. The big CF memorys are still pretty pricey. Plus, I bet this solution would have abysmal write performance.

Even if I could find a workable solution, the thing I keep running into is the absurdity of spending about $100 on a laptop worth little more than that, and rapidly approaching its end of life.

Fortunately, Linux runs extremely well on minimal hardware. It wouldn't be that expensive to move to a used/reconditioned laptop (that supports SATA) and swap out the hard disk for the SSD. It turns out my wife recently switched over to a netbook, and her old Dell Latitude D620 was sitting idle. So, I made her an offer she couldn't refuse. (She didn't refuse.)

I swapped out the hard drive last night, installed Ubuntu on the SSD, and it's working great. (Maybe I'll do a followup post on the filesystem hacks I did to tune for the SSD.)

I'm contemplating one upgrade to the system. I think I'd like to max out the main memory from 2GB to 4GB. That's a $65 proposition. It's not that Linux needs all that space, but when you're running an SSD you want to avoid swapping to disk, which means making sure you never run out of main memory.

Even more important, I could use the additional space to setup a RAM-based tmpfs filesystem for scratch space, for things such as /tmp and web browser cache. You don't want your scratch space on the SSD. Although SSDs are blazingly fast for reads, they are slow for writes and suffer wear from writes.

The last time I booted the D620 with the old hard drive, it took about three minutes to bring up Windows Vista. Now, I can restart (after hibernate to disk) in under ten seconds. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Addendum: if you are thinking of trying this at home, you may want consider a hybrid drive such as the Seagate Momentus XT. It's a conventional hard drive with a small built-in read-only SSD to accelerate loading of frequently used files. I saw one report that found it provides 50% of the benefit of an SSD, but at a much more affordable price. The 250GB model is available for under $100.

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SSDs

This has been a frequent topic with the developers at my company over the past 6 months or so, mainly fueled by posts from Jeff Atwood who extols the virtues of the Seagate Momentus XT as well. One guy went ahead and bought one for himself. I haven't checked back in with him to see how it's going.

Interesting Jeff cites the

Interesting Jeff cites the Crucial RealSSD C300. Since I'm putting the Intel X25-V in the laptop, I need a replacement for the workstation. I ordered a 64GB C300 for that.