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Solid State Storage with Flash Cards

Posted on 2006-05-12
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I suppose my first question is what is the fastest flash card available?  Both in terms of access time (which should be 1ms or better) and in terms of sustained transfer rate (which would hopefully rival an hdd).  Capacity of 1GB or better would be nessesary for it to be usefull for my purposes but the bigger the better of course.  I'm interested in compact flash, SD, MMC, and all the other revisions of those little square plastic chips, and also ATA Flash, or any rendition there of.  Sense there are so many different options out there and I've spent about 2 hours tonight just browsing around the different stuff available and I still dont feel like I have a good handle on what the best solution for my purposes is I figured I would post a question.  Also the flash card needs to be able to use an adapter to ide.  I have found those adapters for the ATA Flash and the Compact Flash and I'm not really sure if the Compact Flash adapters are compatible with SD and MMC sense they dont really specify.  But whether its nessesary or not I suppose depends on your answer to the first question of which is fastest.  So far I'm under the impression that MMC is the fastest out there, coming in at 30MB/s.  But I am unsure of the access time and that is one of my bigger concerns.  I intend to get two ide adapters and plug whatever cards I decide on into them.  From there I want to put the ide adapters on my laptop's ide interface and turn them into a striped raid which I will install windows to.  My intent is to have a solid state storage solution that will fit windows and maybe some other stuff.  (Having two 8GB flash cards would be cool but spensive so we'll see)  With an access time of under a ms which I know the ATA Flash cards have would make windows scream on boot and on any other minor drive access.  Because windows drive accesses are mostly small I dont think a low sustained x-fer rate of 9MB/s would really be an issue especially if it were doubles threw a stripped raid.  Well thats pretty much it.  I'd appreciate any input on the matter.  Obviously I'm just dreaming up things to do and I've always wanted a cool solid state solution to install the operating system to.  I'm hoping such a thing has finally reached joe blow consumer's spectrum.
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Question by:purfus
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Gary Case earned 1000 total points
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First, a flash card is nowhere near fast enough to beat the transfer rate of the faster hard drives.  So the concept has a major technical flaw with the current state-of-the-art in flash drive technology.   The best transfer rates are with the fast SD cards, and they only achieve a bit over 20MB/s (compared to disks with several times that).  

However, for a desktop (but not a laptop as you've suggested), you can do what you've suggested rather easily with a Gigabyte i-RAM card:
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E16815168001

This card lets you install up to 4GB of RAM (DDR) and it "looks" exactly like a SATA hard drive to the system.   Except, of course, the access time is essentially zero and the transfer rate is always at maximum interface speed (150 mb/s).   There is a new i-RAM II scheduled for release very soon which will support up to 16MB of DDR-2 memory and is rumored to transfer at SATA-II speeds (300 mb/s).

... so ... your concept has indeed reached the "... consumer's spectrum " for desktops; but isn't quite there for laptops (yet).   But I'm sure it's only a matter of time :-)

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by:snerkel
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Another flaw is that flash cards have a finite read/write life that is likely to be exceeded fairly quickly when running an OS such as Windows from it.
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by:purfus
ID: 16674131
Cool, thanks for the input.  I like the look of that i-ram card.  I've seen implementations like that before but never anything too overly practical and never anything made by a large company.  If only it would stack to add more sticks.
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by:Gary Case
ID: 16674234
It is a pretty cool card.  XP installed on an i-RAM boots in about 9 seconds :-)

You might want to read this article:  http://www.anandtech.com/storage/showdoc.aspx?i=2480&p=1




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by:purfus
ID: 16674240
I would like to see that coupled with a raid drive that would mirror the device on a magnetic storage.  I wonder how that would impact the performance.  I know the memory itself would be more than capable of keeping up with the user's demands and mirroring itself onto a disk for data protection.
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by:purfus
ID: 16674267
I would really like to see stand alone version.  One that would fill a 5 1/4 drive bay and all one to plug in a lot more ram.  Imagine two of these devices filling up 1 bay each with 16 slots each.  Running on a stripped raid.  Add in a little data integrity and it would be an awesome storage solution.
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by:Gary Case
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Well ... they already make such gadgets ==> they're called solid-state disk drives.   You can get them in 3.5" versions (for desktops) and 2.5" versions (for laptops).   Sit down, however, before you ask the price :-)
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by:purfus
ID: 16675499
Lol, yeh I've looked into those b4.  The price of those things are the reason I usually keep my eye's open for alternatives.  RAM makes a good alternative, but usually there isn't a good implementation of the concept.  Maybe giga-byte will turn that around though.  They are certainly large enough to do some good stuff with it.  I will buy one when they release the 16gig version.  I would love to have one that I could adapt to work with my laptop.  To me I dont see what it cant be done.  I dont see any reason for having it on a pci bus.  I'm sure usb could power it and if not power it elsewhere.  Besides that all one would need is a cable to their ide/ata interface.  Which might be a little trick with a laptop 2.5 inch style ribbon cable but it would be doable.  Actually I wonder if a pcmcia slot could offer the kind of transfer rates needed.
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by:Gary Case
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"... I will buy one when they release the 16gig version ..." ==> Me too.    16GB is plenty for a system partition, and if all the programs I use are on an i-RAM program loads will be VERY nice.   (They're already pretty fast with my Raptor, but will be even nicer with an i-RAM)
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by:Gary Case
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... If 16GB isn't enough, you could also use two i-RAMs :-)   Install XP on the 1st; convert it to a dynamic disk; then make the 2nd i-RAM a dynamic disk as well, and mount it as "Program Files" on the C: drive.   You'd now effectively have a very fast 32GB system drive !!
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by:Gary Case
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... one other thought:  although i-RAM is MUCH less expensive than a solid state disk, it's still not "cheap".   The board itself is very inexpensive; but adding 16GB of RAM adds a fair number of $$ to the cost.   I'm planning on $1,000 to build an 8GB i-RAM after the 16GB board comes out.   A fully loaded 16GB version would currently cost close to $3,000.
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by:kode99
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Actually you can buy a 8GB 2.5" solid state drive for a lot less than that,  $529 direct from manufacturer  possibly less through distribution channels.  Solid state technologies are coming down in price though still are many, many times higher than regular hardrives, per GB.

http://ec.transcendusa.com/product/ItemDetail.asp?ItemID=TS8GIFD25

One thing to keep in mind is that flash ram does wear out and has a limited number of rewrite cycles.  Its going to be 100,000 or 1,000,000 cycles but anything that is doing intensive disk activity can eat one up.  This is one plus of devices like the i-RAM which has no such limitation,  though the trade off is that i-RAM is cleared if it loses power where a flash drive is not.

Heres a another PCI card using DDR ram 8GB capacity,  supposed to be released 2nd quarter 2006.  
http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=28647

All in all this thing can still only provide data at the speed of the SATA interface.  A properly configured RAID array can also max out the SATA interface.  Though this array would not be inexpensive,  it is a lot less expensive for any significant capacity.

I would also mention that I have had sucess running win98 and 2000 off a compact flash card using a CF->IDE adapter.  Works fine but it is slow booting.  Here's a link to a few varieties of CF->IDE adapters if you are interested,
http://www.logicsupply.com/default.php/cPath/47_67

I've not seen one for other card formats though they may exist.  A CF card is no speed demon by any means.

I believe the reason the iRAM is built for the PCI slots is that the PCI bus has power available even when a system is shut down.  All the other power wires are only powered when the system is running.   Given the potential of a disk wipe with the loss of power I would not hold my breath for any external version,  one slip of a cable and 'poof'.  Having it securely screwed in provides some reliability.

Heres another review of the iRAM with some performance comparison charts,
http://techreport.com/reviews/2006q1/gigabyte-iram/index.x?pg=1
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by:n_vishwanatha
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by:purfus
ID: 16685598
Thats a good point on the pci bus.  Although if I could use an external power supply I could hook it up to a 50 dollar UPS and it would probably run for a week on that alone, not including it's battery.  I'll look into solid state a bit more.  500 bucks isn't too off the wall for a PC.  Although I bet DDR is much faster than a solid state disk.  Too bad the ddr kind of has to be run through a normal disk controller to ensure it's bootable and all.  Would be quite nice to tap into the power of the pci-x slots for data storage.  Imagine booting a system that was completely loaded onto ddr and had direct access to the cpu and memory through a pci-x bus.  Wholey crap it would be done before it started lol.  Especially on a nice amd x2 4800 or something, wow...  

n_vish, the link is dead now.

Well thanks for all the great info.  I'm going to leave this open for a bit just to see what kind of other responses and stuff people give.  Gary and kode will be getting all the points though for his fast response and attentativeness, no offense to anyone else's responses that might come.  Anyway this topic was one of those more interesting fuzzy topics we all like to day dream about so I doubt anyone here that has or will make a response cares about the points anyway.  
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by:Gary Case
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I wouldn't be overly concerned about the likelihood of power loss.   First, the i-RAM (and any competitor will do the same) has several hours worth of battery backup built-in.  Second, the capacity is nominal so anyone using this will amost certainly maintain a current image of the drive - I certainly will.   And a "restore" from that image will be a VERY fast restore :-)

The "solid state drive" that kode linked to is NOT what I was referring to above.   That's a simple IDE interface for a flash drive -- with all of the problems associated with flash memory:  slow access (relatively), limited duty cycle, modest capacity, etc.    What I was referring to (when I said "sit down" before asking the price) was the solid state disks that have been used for mission critical applications, intense temperature environments, etc. for the past decade or so.   These use very high-performance static RAM technologies, although some are now using DDR technologies as well; and are MUCH more expensive -- the "lower cost" ones are now down to as "little" as $3/MB average cost ==> that's $3,000/GB -- or $24,000 for an 8GB drive.   They're used in the Space Shuttle, on oil platforms, in the space station, in racecars, etc.   And they aren't limited to IDE or SATA interfaces -- you can get 2GB fibre channel interfaces for them.   Not exactly priced for the PC market (yet) ==> but the i-RAM is a worthy competitor at a MUCH more reasonable price.   A 16GB drive for $2,500 (about what a 16GB i-RAM II would cost)  may not sound "cheap" -- but in the solid state arena it's a BARGAIN.

... and this stuff is all relative ==> my first hard drive (~ 1980) cost me $4500 and held a whopping 26MB !!  (that "M" is NOT a typo)
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by:purfus
ID: 16696019
Lol, yeh relatively speaking things are cheap these days and getting cheaper by the minute.  Never seams to be cheap enough though.  And realistically the extra 30 seconds to startup photoshop probably isn't even worth a couple grand to me.  Def not worth 24k.  I just like to stay up on the latest in storage tech.  Seems to me, from the reading in popular science and around the web, the next 10 years are going to hold some pretty big leaps for us in storage technology and it will all be aimed at being cheap enough for the pc market.  
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by:purfus
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Ok, Closing this question.  Thanks for all the great advice and fun chat.  
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by:kode99
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It is too bad that the iRAM does not provide for a direct PCI interface with a driver that operated much like the micrsoft RAM drive.  Something along those lines that also allowed for combining multiple units would make for a very nice product that would have more practical applications.

When I first saw it I thought it was a PCI direct interface.  Though even the next generation of SATA will double in speed again over SATA II.  It's not memory direct fast but pretty good.  The SATA interface is a cheap and fairly universal way to go.  Probably save a lot of time/cost on making drivers that work for several OS's.

Given that the PCI bus is just powering iRAM it would not be too much work to make your own external unit.  Get a short PCI riser and wire it up with a power supply and use a external SATA interface.  This way you don't modifiy the card in any way.  I would probably beef it up with a decent sized gel cell battery on the power supply.   It certainly would maintain the unit for some time.  It's just not the sort of thing you would want to not have a good backup of.
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by:Gary Case
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I think worrying about the data retention issue with an i-RAM is unnecessary.   First, it has 16 hours worth of on-board battery backup.   Second, it's powered by the 5v standby power whenever the PC's plugged in, whether the PC's on or not.  Third, I don't EVER have a PC without a UPS -- and anyone who's spending enough for an i-RAM should certainly have the same.   Fourth, it's TRIVIAL to simply IMAGE the i-RAM (and creating an image would be FAST ==> about as fast as you could write the image file to disk) ==> just set up an automatic imaging task to do it every night at 3am (or whenever);  and if the i-RAM does lose it's data just do a restore (again, this would be a VERY fast task -- probably well under a minute).
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by:purfus
ID: 16764963
Well adding a bigger battery would be pretty trivial.  Yeh it would be easy to do an image but I'd rather have the extra battery power and not have to bother.  I was actually just thinking about what would be involved in turning it into an external unit.  And I agree kode99 I bet it would be pretty easy.  I think I'll buy one and see what it looks like and see about modifying it.  Would be cool to mount it in a project box from radio shack along with some rc batteries.  I'd like to plug it into usb.  If I could do that all I would need would be a pcmcia sata adapter, and I could run it on my laptop.  Or maybe I would be able to get a cable into the internal sata adapter, but that might not be so pretty.  As far as drivers for this thing goes.  Does it even have drivers?  I mean I would think the only drivers that would be needed would be the ones for the sata adapter.  Does windows need a driver for the drive as well?  Well anyway, the more I think about it the more I think I would be able to mod things enough to make it work on my laptop.
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by:purfus
ID: 16765355
http://www.cdrinfo.com/Sections/News/Details.aspx?NewsId=14213

According to that article the new 8gig i-ram will be out in july and it will be prices around 60 bucks.  Altho I bet giga-byte over produces them and we'll be able to get them around 30-40.  2gb chips are around 150 on a good day so that'll put the price up to 600+ for an 8gb.  Which is a bit rich for my blood.  However, if they are 60 per we would be able to get 2, and load it with 1gb chips at around 50 bucks per for the 3200 (found some on pricewatch around there earlier), which would put the price at 260 per.  At that price per 4gb, with a nice rocketraid card you could hook up 8 of these things (assuming we hack them for a different power source which I have confirmed is posible and even found the pins that it uses for power) and it would give 1200MegaBytes per second transfer rates.  Imagine that, lol.  Madness.  It would cost about 2grand, or 4 if you want to load it up with 8gb each.  But at 4gb that would be 32gb, or 64gb with the 8gb setups, and a mad transfer rate.  Actually if you wanted to dump 4grand into this stuff you could have a 64gb drive that would blow your system away.  Someday.  Not for me today though lol.  But I am all for stacking up these things on a nice rocketraid card stripped ofcourse and multiplying the transfer rates.  Even buying 8 of the i-ram cards, modifying them for another power source, and putting 1gb in each that would give an 8gb drive with a 1200MB/s sustained transfer rate.  that would cost under 800 with the current memory prices.  Plus the rocketraid card.  Cool stuff.
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by:purfus
ID: 16765364
http://www.anandtech.com/storage/showdoc.aspx?i=2480&p=3

Thats the article that talks about the pci pins it uses.  I havn't been able to find anything more that 2-port pcmcia raid cards so thats pretty much the limit for my laptop.  But 300MB/s isn't anything to gock at.  With a max of 16GB.
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by:Gary Case
ID: 16765390
Building an external version of this is a nifty idea -- and it WOULD be very nice in terms of (a) longer power retention; and especially (b) the ability to use it with a laptop.

... HOWEVER, just for grins, let's assume you built the 1200MB/S box you noted above ==>  What interface are you planning on using to pump data into the PC at this rate ?????   A PCI x16 slot would do it -- but not from an external box.
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by:purfus
ID: 16768284
http://www.highpoint-tech.com/USA/rr1820a.htm

I run one of those in my desktop.  It's a great card and supposedly capable of the speeds I talked about.
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by:purfus
ID: 16768293
As far as it being external.  The Sata cables wouldn't have a problem reaching outside the box.  But if you could fit this unit insite the desktop unit all the better.
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by:Gary Case
ID: 16768992
Your Rocket-Raid card's host interface is:  " PCI-X 64bit, 66/100/133Mhz, compatible to PCI"

... so IF it's in a 133MHz PCI-X slot it's max transfer rate would be 133MHz x 64 bits / 8 bits/byte = 1064MB/s ... or not quite the speed you noted above.    And that's assuming you have it in a 64-bit 133MHz PCI-X slot => NOT a PCI slot.  (AND that there are no other boards competing for bus bandwidth)

As I noted above, a PCI Express x16 card COULD achieve these rates;  but not many systems have x16 slots for other-than-video cards.  (that may change)

... still a neat idea though :-)
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by:purfus
ID: 16771327
Well any desktop I buy in the near future will definitly have  some extra pci express x16 slots.  And whether or not I use these i-ram cards I would have a rocketraid card like this to run my system.  I use a 2 drive stripe now, its great stuff.  And that's a good point on the max rate of the pci-express slot.  The rocketraid advertisement claims it is capable of 1200.  But oh well 1GB per second is good enough for me anyway.  Doubt I would ever be willing to spend that much on storage anyway.  Maybe someday.  I'm def going to buy a couple of these things to play with once they release the new version.
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by:Gary Case
ID: 16772600
"... def going to buy a couple of these things to play with once they release the new version...." ==>  Me too :-)
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by:purfus
ID: 16772982
Ultimately it would be cool if gigabyte would build something like this into one of their motherboards.  Have the thing should have a similar bus to what system memory has and ofcourse have some battery backup.  The bios should be smart enough to boot off it.  The only reason I can think of to have it go through some sort of cable interface is board real estate.  But maybe theres enough room to lay some chips down almost completely on their side on the underside of the motherboard.  I donno.  Anyway, this thing would be much better if it had a nice fast and wide bus and had some integration in the bios.  Maybe use a pci-x and actually use the pci-x bus's capabilities.  This would even be a good solution if it only worked with certain gigabyte boards.  I would certainly buy a new mobo if it allowed me to plug in a few gig of fast memory and use it as a system drive.  It makes sense to have the OS installed and opperating on memory like that.  And it would be much nicer if it could actually use more of the bandwidth and speed of DDR memory.
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