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The proper care and feeding of SSD storage

Jon L. Jacobi | May 14, 2013
Your solid-state drive sits there in silence. It's sleek. Elegant. More than a little mysterious.The hard drive it replaced was easy to understand: A soft hum assured you that its platters were spinning. A quiet mechanical click informed you of its read/write operations. You'd groom it with the occasional defrag. Times were good.

Nowadays, we have the TRIM command (it's not an acronym, despite the capital letters). TRIM is an operating-system order that instructs the SSD's controller to preemptively erase used cells containing unneeded data. TRIM is supported in Windows 7 and later, and it ensures that your SSD's performance will remain at its peak over time.

Recovering data from a failed SSD
SSDs, and solid-state storage in general, have a disturbing tendency toward binary functionality. An SSD failure typically goes like this: One minute it's working, the next second it's bricked. The latest drives are supposed to alert you when they're nearing the end of their useful life span, but what happens if the warning pops up and you're not there to see it? The solution, of course, is to back up your SSD in advance.

Contrary to common belief, however, data can be recovered from a failed SSD. DriveSavers, a California firm known for recovering data from hard drives that have experienced the most catastrophic failures, can perform the same service on SSDs. Whether the failure lies with the controller or the NAND itself, the company has a good, though not perfect, success rate.

That 'dead' drive may just be awaiting rescue
How is this possible? Many times, what seems like a hardware failure is actually a firmware failure. The controller simply encounters a situation it can't deal with, and locks up. If the controller is bad, you can replace it--provided that you can find the exact, correct model. Remember when I said that only a few companies are building memory controllers for SSDs? Well, some SSD manufacturers use what might look like an off-the-shelf controller when it's actually one built to their own specifications.

De-soldering chips is a painstaking task. I know--I've done it myself. DriveSavers has a robot for that work, or it would never be able to operate cost-effectively. The company has also developed proprietary recovery software that can re-create data from just the NAND itself, even if a bad chip is involved. Company reps were understandably vague when I asked about DriveSavers' techniques, but the bottom line is that you might be able to recover data from a failed SSD.

Some final SSD tips
SSDs are wonderful storage devices, but they're not perfect and they're not all equal. A no-name bargain unit might not be as good of a deal as you think because it probably uses slow NAND and an outdated controller. Shop carefully. Here are some additional tips:

  • Buy the highest capacity you can afford. You'll get better performance, although the benefit declines rapidly beyond 256GB.
  • If you're running an OS that doesn't have native TRIM support, check the manufacturer's website for a driver that will force garbage collection. You might also look for a utility that you can run occasionally to perform the same task.
  • Use your SSD for the computer's operating system and application software. Store your movies and most of your other data on a mechanical hard drive. Hard drives stream media just fine, and they're often better suited for simultaneous recording and playback. They're also at least ten times cheaper per gigabyte.


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