Spinning disk (HDD) and flash storage (SSD) drives are nearly the same cost these days, so it’s no surprise that many shooters, filmmakers, and content creators are turning to SSDs for long-term storage of critical media files. Like human beings, our drives require some amount of exercise to maintain good health; both traditional HDDs and SSDs must be powered up from time to time to maintain acceptable writing speed and reliable data storage.
When designing a drive, engineers assume that a minimum amount of energy will always be applied. Leaving any drive on a shelf without power for months or years will almost certainly lead to lost data. For production entities and studios with vast archives stored on drives sitting idle in storerooms or warehouses, the failure of a single large drive or RAID array can be catastrophic.
Mechanical drives are inherently slow, so moving large data files can significantly reduce a facility’s productivity, and the high failure rate of mechanical drives is an ongoing threat. The distance between platters is measured in nanometers — literally wavelengths of light — so there isn’t much room for dislocation of the spinning disks due to shock. Rich Leonarz, Samsung’s director of marketing, compares the process to flying a 747 at maximum speed one foot above the treetops in a forest. The slightest anomaly or physical impact can potentially crash the drive and result in a loss of data. This external peril is in addition to the normal wear and tear of mechanical arms moving continuously back and forth inside the drive.
For documentary shooters operating in a rough-and-tumble remote environment, the move to flash storage can’t come too soon. SSDs contain no moving parts, so there is little worry from dropping a memory card or SSD while chasing a herd of wildebeests or operating a camera in a high-vibration environment like a racecar or fighter jet.
SSDs offer 100x the speed and performance of mechanical drives, so it’s not surprising that traditional HDDs are receding in the application hierarchy. Currently, the lower cost per gig makes mechanical drives still a good choice for reality TV, behind-the-scenes shows, and some backup applications, but as camera files grow exponentially larger with higher resolution 4K recording, the SSD’s greater speed becomes to maintain a practical, reasonably productive workflow.
The capacity of mechanical drives is reaching now the upper limit. Due to heat and physical constraints, there are only so many platters that can be placed one on top of the other. SSD flash memory, in contrast, may be stacked in dozens of layers, with each new generation of module stacked higher and higher as drive manufacturers derive more bits out of each package. In its latest-generation SSDs, Samsung is moving from 256Gb flash chips in 48 layers to 512Gb chips in 64 layers. Enabling this large increase in capacity, the PC board inside a typical SSD occupies only half the physical space, so there is still ample room inside the drive housing for cooling and dissipation of potentially damaging heat.
PCIe-configured SSDs feature a copper layer integrated into the drive label to help dissipate heat and maintain a safe operating temperature. In solid-state drives, the amount of heat that must be dissipated is directly proportional to the energy applied. SSDs typically contain a thermal-throttle temperature control switch that reduces the speed of data transfer to prevent overheating and ensure reliable read-write operation.
So how much should you exercise your HDD and SSD drives? Samsung says its consumer drives can be left safely unpowered for about a year. Enterprise data drives, on the other hand, are designed for heavy use with continuous data loads, so they offer only a six-month window of reliability without power. In order to achieve maximum performance, it seems that engineers have designed these drives to be continuously powered inside a PC or as part of a rack server.
In contrast, some shooters and owner-operators may not use a particular drive or memory card for many months or even years. It is important for these folks to power up their SSDs from time to time to ensure a satisfactory writing speed and reliable storage.
And, yes, like any recording medium, SSDs do have a limited life expectancy. The silicon material in flash memory can only support so many read-write cycles and will eventually fail. As a practical matter for most of us, the EOL of solid-state drives should not pose much of a problem. Depending on the load and level of use, consumer-class SSDs from Samsung and others writing 10–20GB per day have an estimated life of 120 years before the functionality of the individual flash memory cells has been exhausted. And most of us will have replaced our cameras, recording media, and storage drives long before then.