Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Solid State Hard Drives, and 15 year old memories

About two weeks ago, I installed a solid state hard drive in my computer -- a SanDisk Ultra Plus 128GB that I got on super sale for $85 -- plenty big enough to hold an operating system and a bunch of commonly-used files.

Bootup time, from the end of the BIOS screen to the computer on and all applications available, was 11.3 seconds.  Holy crap that's fast.

Almost as fast as my computer was 15 years ago, in 1998.

Allow me to take a long and extremely nerdy stroll down memory lane.  You see, when I was a sophomore in college, I decided to go off the reservation ... way off the reservation, and buy a Macintosh.  Not just any Macintosh, but a Power Computing PowerBase 240.

This was a computer that would run the Mac operating system (OS 8.1 at the time, I believe), but was not sold by Apple.  This system and its ilk became known as the Mac Clones, and they were killing Apple's business line: clones, generally cheaper and more powerful than the hardware Apple was offering, were selling much faster than Apple's wares..  Although I didn't like it, Steve Jobs made a very smart decision when he stopped licensing the OS and effectively killed off the clone market.  It came with a Motorola PowerPC 603e CPU running at a whopping 240 MHz and a 40 MHz front side bus and 16MB of RAM.  The 603 chips were generally slower per MHz than the 601 generation of chips they intended to replace, but the 603's (including the 603e and 603ev) could run at much higher clock speeds.

The computer hummed along happily for a year, and then the G3 line of processors came out.  At the time, these were unbelievably fast and powerful chips.

And my 603e chip, due to some brilliant design by the folks at PowerComputing, was located on a daughtercard and slid right out -- to be replaced by a PowerLogix G3/300 CPU.  And overclocking was easy: just turn some dip switches and crank up the MHz until either the chip or your memory couldn't take it any more.  I had mine set to 363 MHz and it was fantastic.

But there was one last trick up my sleeve that made this Mac clone way, way, way faster than anything else at the time.  You see, the memory controller that supplied power to the RAM was of a unique design for those old Motorola 600 series processors: it could keep the RAM supplied with power through a restart.

That's right: the contents of a RAM disk could be maintained through a reboot.  You could set up a RAM disk, install the OS on it, and reboot.  Your entire OS was running in RAM. For some reason, when Apple upgraded to the G3 chip (and all subsequent CPU's), the memory controller has been unable to maintain the contents of RAM through a restart.

At this time, I think I had 96MB of RAM in the machine -- about as much as it could handle.  The flagship OS at the time was Mac OS 9, but there was no way the entire OS could fit in my 96 MB of RAM (and still have some RAM left over for, you know, general use).  Thus enter the last trick up my sleeve for this rocket sled: the recovery disk for Mac OS 8.1 would fit on a floppy disk.  It was stripped down, it was mostly in black and white (all icons were in black and white so the OS would fit on a 1.4MB floppy), but it would read the newfangled HFS+ file partition scheme, and holy crap was it fast.

So, in the end, I had a Mac Clone (oddball #1) with an upgraded and overclocked G3 chip (oddball #2) running a recovery version of the OS (oddball #3), all on a RAM disk (oddball #4).  Startup time, from the reboot chime to open windows was about 3 seconds.  It was instant-on.  Applications loaded nearly instantaneously, limited solely by the read speed of the hard drive.  As long as the applications didn't need to touch the hard drive, the computer was always faster than you could think and respond.  It was awesome.  And it was only possible with the G3 chip because I had the original memory controller from the 603e chip.

Today, solid state hard drives are making some serious inroads into computing again.  They've been offered on laptops for a while now due to their small size, tiny power draw (2-3 watts under load), and crazy fast speed.  And they're getting big enough and cheap enough now that they're serviceable for desktop computers, to hold the OS, a few applications, and important data.  The speeds of SSD's are finally catching back up to account for the bloat that has become common now -- my work laptop (a not shabby Core i7 processor with a 7200 RPM HDD), running Windows 7, takes about 5 minutes to boot up.

And yet I still pine for the days when my OS would fit on a floppy and everything could be crammed onto a RAM disk.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.