For enthusiasts and gamers, over the past several years, combining several hard drives in a striped RAID configuration has provided reasonable benefits over and above a single hard drive. With my new SSD insight however, it’s now apparent that RAID never really provided sufficient improvements that justified the additional cost, time and effort involved other than for a few applications. It was really the HD video editing users that benefited the most as they were able to increase the size and performance of a single storage volume and support merging of two or more HD video streams in real time as a single disk drive on it’s own just wasn’t fast enough i.e. they were forced to RAID. Since then, compression techniques have improved to the point where you don’t need to RAID disks even for video in many situations (except for the high end professional rigs).
Why were there no real improvements observed from RAID in gaming applications? Talking to a few gamer developers it’s pretty apparent that given the slow response times of hard disks, a lot of development hours have been spent ensuring that the software avoided hitting that slow rotating media at all costs, relying instead on RAM based caching. Then along came games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2(ok – full disclosure, two of my favorites) that had to load a significant amount of data from the hard drives as you loaded or transitioned to new areas of the online world. This load time becomes worse as customizations in the form of add-on utilities are added and as the expansion packs were introduced with richer media content.
Then Along Came Enthusiast Class SSDs
SSDs changed the situation considerably. We are now able to get a simple add-on component that operates just like a regular hard drive, but with 5x or more the data streaming capability directly off the drive and 100x+ (more for higher end) the random IO performance versus a regular hard drive. They are also small, compact and lower power just like a laptop drive, so no upgrades to your computer case and PSU as was typical in the RAID days.
We did a little experiment of our own to see how well SSDs behaved using a Monster Digital LeMans series SSD, a SATA 6Gbps model based on the newer Sandforce chipsets. The same Intel core i5 system was setup with a regular hard drive for one configuration and the same system then installed onto an SSD. In both cases, the entire operating system and World of Warcraft game was loaded onto the single storage devices with no other applications or antivirus installed other than Fraps for capturing video.
Configured with a 7200 RPM 500G disk drive, the time taken to load World of Warcraft with a significant number of add-on helper applications was nearly 2 minutes 30s, including the time taken for all the neighboring characters and players to load. The exact same configuration on the SSD took a little over 7s. To see how much this was just the SSD versus the 6G SATA interface (the Intel motherboard we used had 2 AHCI SATA 6G ports) we repeated the test with a a 3G SATA device and it only took around 8 seconds i.e. unless your application really needs the extra few seconds, 3G SATA works pretty well also.
The system configuration we used for this test was:
- Intel Core i5 3.1GHz
- Asus P8 Z68-V/Gen3 Motherboard
- 4G RAM
- AMD Radeon HD 6770 1G Graphics Card
- WD 500G 7200 RPM SATA drive for HDD based testing
- Monster Digital LeMans 480G SSD SATA 6G drive for SSD based testing
If you can afford it, take a serious look at an SSD. They speed up your system without a doubt in gaming applications and the system just works better overall. Professional gamers have already made the transition. The only thing to be concerned about is reinstalling your operating system and applications to get the maximum possible performance which is fine for most enthusiasts, but for the adventurous, there are solutions coming to help address this also or you can try migrating your existing system over using some of the software tools available.
Overall, very happy with the change to SSD.