Most consumers are skeptical when they see a manufacturer whipping out grandiose performance claims. And for good reason. The manufacturer could be stretching the truth, twisting the results, or just being downright misleading. From this distrust grew demand for 3rd-party writers to review products, test claims and provide an unbiased analysis of the device’s performance and other capabilities – as consumers would experience themselves.
Who can really claim to be an SSD benchmarking expert?
Solid state drive (SSD) technology is still relatively new in the computer industry, and in many ways SSDs are profoundly different from hard disk drives – perhaps most notably, in the way they record data, to a NAND cell rather than on spinning media. Because of differences in their operation, SSDs have to be tested in ways that are not necessarily obvious.
Can anyone who simply runs a benchmark application claim to be an expert? I would say not. Just as anyone sitting behind the wheel of a car is not necessarily an expert driver. The problem is that it is hard to determine the thoroughness and expertise of an SSD reviewer. Does the author really understand the details behind the technology to run adequate tests and analyze the results?
Can “experts” present bad data?
Maybe it is obvious, but of course experts can be wrong, especially when they are self-proclaimed mavens without deep experience in the technology they cover. At a minimum, you can generally count on them to act in good faith – that is, to not be intentionally misleading – but they can easily be misinformed (for instance, by manufacturers) and perpetuate the misinformation. What’s more, some reviewers are pressured to do a cursory analysis of an SSD as they crank through countless product evaluations under unremitting deadlines – a crush that can cause oversights in telling aspects of a drive’s performance. In any case, it is not good to rely on bad data no matter the intention.
What makes for a thorough SSD review?
Some reviewers have gone to great lengths to ensure their SSD analysis is extremely detailed and represents a real-world environment and performance. These reviewers will generally talk about how their analysis simulates a true user or server environment. The trouble can begin if a reviewer doesn’t recognize normal operation of an SSD in its own environment. With SSDs, “normal” is when garbage collection is operating, which greatly impacts overall performance. It’s important for reviewers to recognize that, with a new SSD, garbage collection is inactive until at least one full physical capacity of data has been sequentially written to the device. For example, with a 256GB SSD, 256GB of data must be written to trigger garbage collecting. At that point, garbage collection is ongoing, the drive has reached its steady-state performance, and the device is ready for evaluation. Random writes are another story, requiring up to three passes (full-capacity writes) randomly written to the SSD before the steady-state performance level shown below is reached.
You can see that running only a few minutes of random write tests on this SSD logs performance of over 275 MB/s. However, once garbage collection starts, performance plunges and then takes up to 3 hours before the true performance of 25 MB/s (a 90% drop) is finally evident – a phenomenon that often is not communicated clearly in reviews nor widely understood.
Good benchmarkers will discuss how their review factors in both garbage collection preparation and steady-state performance testing. Test results that purportedly achieve steady state in less time than in the example above are unlikely to reflect real-world performance. This is all part of what is called SSD preconditioning, but keep in mind that different tests require different steps for preconditioning.
For additional information on this topic, you can review my presentation from Flash Memory Summit 2013 on “Don’t let your favorite benchmarks lie to you.”