A Flash vs. Hard Drive debate seems a little trivial at this point. There was a time when a legitimate argument could be had between the two sides. But now, with the improvements to flash technology, it’s hard to imagine anyone making a strong case for a future of hard drive disks. At this point, the question isn’t flash or disk, but rather, flash for how long?
But before we unanimously pick a winner without saying why, let’s examine some benefits that flash storage has over traditional hard drives.
Durability: HDDs store memory on rotating disks coated with magnetic material, which spin at hundreds of miles an hour. Because of their moving parts, there is lots of room for mechanical failure. If they are dropped, or even jolted to heavily, it can throw off the rotation and destroy the hard drive. Flash devices don’t have that problem because they have no moving parts. Flash-based devices, like SSDs, are better suited to protect your data because of how they’re designed.
Size: There is a limit to how small HDDs can get because of the rotating platters. Once again, flash doesn’t have the same limitation. As technology improves, flash devices can continue to shrink, or we can fit more storage in the same space. Case and point, the original thumb drives were 8MB and now they’re available at 1TB. That means devices like SSDs will also get smaller, leading to more compact machines.
Speed: Obviously with a name like flash, you’d expect speed. SSDs are much faster than their HDD counterparts. Flash devices store information in an array of rewritable memory cells. Without waiting for the rotating disk to speed up, computers equipped with flash will boot much faster. In addition, apps launch rapidly, documents transfer quicker, and there is just a higher level of overall performance.
For a long time, one of the biggest drawbacks to flash was the high price tag and small storage. Well, storage capacity isn’t an issue anymore. Flash-based SSDs used to max out at 128GB in personal computers, but we are now seeing 4TB drives, with expectations of 6TB and 8TB not far behind.
But what about the price? That’s a fair question. HDDs are certainly far less expensive than their flash counterparts. In fact, you can get a 512GB HDD for much, much less than a 128GB SSD. However, with greater improvements in technology, and an increase in manufacturing, flash prices are beginning to drop.
You might have heard that flash memory only has a limited number of uses. It’s true. There is only a certain number of times flash cells can be rewritten before they no longer hold data. However, new technology has significantly lengthened flash cell longevity. You’re more likely to discard a system because it’s obsolete before you run into lifespan issues. Also, as a quick reminder, hard drives don’t last forever either. The moving mechanical parts gradually fail. This means longevity is pretty much a wash when considering which storage system to go with.
The silver bullet in this debate is found by examining industry trends. In 2013, HDD demands were flat, with estimates calling for a 20 percent decrease in demand from 2012. The fact is, most enterprise HDDs are being replaced by flash storage or hybrid solutions. Flash just presents so many more benefits than traditional HDDs. Not to mention, even traditional hard drive companies are introducing flash storage options in order to remain relevant. It’s pretty clear both suppliers and businesses recognize where things are headed.
While flash seems like the way of the future, it’s difficult to say for how long. It goes without saying that technologies improve and there will always be bigger and better. One of the primary reasons flash continues to dominate is it doesn’t have a strong competitor. There isn’t anything currently available that can match it. However, that isn’t to say things aren’t in development. There are a number of alternative memory technologies, like carbon nanotubes or memristors. Right now these efforts have failed to deliver products in significant volume, but who knows what their potential could be?