Debunked: Your SSD won’t lose data if left unplugged after all

GordonMahUng
26 May, 2015
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Two weeks ago, we ran a story about how leaving an SSD in an unpowered state could result in data loss. Well, if you’re in a panic because the internet told you that your shiny new SSD may lose data in ‘just a few days’ when stored in a hot room, take a chill pill – it’s apparently all a huge misunderstanding, according to the man who wrote the original presentation on which all the fear is based.

In a conversation recorded in PCWorld, Alvin Cox and Kent Smith, the Seagate engineer who wrote the presentation that set the internet abuzz, said we’re all just reading it wrong.

“People have misunderstood the data that they’re looking at,” Smith said.

Cox agreed saying there’s no reason to fret.

“I wouldn’t worry about (losing data),” Cox told PCWorld. “This all pertains to end of life. As a consumer, an SSD product or even a flash product is never going to get to the point where it’s temperature-dependent on retaining the data.”

Why this matters: Users from New York to Rio De Janiero are freaking out over the risk of their SSDs losing data when powered off, so we decided to go to the source of it all for the truth.

It looks like a misunderstanding of this five-year-old PowerPoint page set the internet ablaze

The original presentation dates back to when Cox was a chairman on a JEDEC committee, the industry group that blesses memory specs. It was intended to help data centre and enterprise customers understand what could happen to an SSD – but only after it had reached the end of its useful life span and then stored at abnormal temperatures. It’s not intended to be applied to an SSD in the prime of its life in either an enterprise or a consumer product.

But that’s not how the internet viewed it. The presentation surfaced in a forensic computing blog as to why an SSD could start to lose data in a short amount of time at high temperatures. Once media outlets jumped on the story, the ripple spread across the globe.

“The standards body for the microelectronics industry has found that Solid State Drives (SSD) can start to lose their data and become corrupted if they are left without power for as little as a week,” said The International Business Times, one of the first to run with a story on the blog post. The IBT story also quoted Cox’s presentation as recent, despite it being five years old. From there, the internet seemed to amplify as fact that an SSD left unplugged would lose data – all citing Cox’s JEDEC presentation.

But Cox and Smith said that’s not correct. In fact, both said, an SSD that isn’t worn out rarely experiences data errors. Data centre use also subjects SSDs to far more ‘program/erase’ cycles than a typical consumer could under any normal circumstances.

They cited numerous tech websites that have torture tested SSDs well beyond their rated life spans using 24/7 work loads. The TechReport did manage to kill a number of SSDs, but only after writing hundreds of terabytes to them, with some of the drives making it beyond the petabyte range. That’s an unlikely duty cycle for consumer use.

Since it’s nearly impossible for an average users to even wear out an SSD – one of the criteria for the SSD to lose data at high temperatures – the risk of data loss is very small, Cox and Smith said. Even so, a worn out SSD would still go a year without data loss, according to the data in the original presentation, and that’s while being stored at 87 degrees the entire time.

That’s not to say that SSDs aren’t immune from failures and data loss. Like all electronics, there’s always the risk of failure. Our own story helps put SSD failure rates in perspective.

Enterprise customers are OK too

Enterprise customers also are largely immune to heat-related dead drive issues. That’s because, again, it’s a scenario for only after the SSD has been worn out. And since enterprise customers would prefer tape or other cheaper methods to back up data over an SSD, it’s an unrealistic scenario where data loss would happen to enterprise customers, Smith said.

So why even do the original presentation?

Smith and Cox said the intent was a spec for a worst case scenario. What if the truck with the SSDs from the data centre broke down on the way to the place where the data would be archived to tape? How long could the truck be parked before data loss occurred from excessive heat? While that’s a scenario that could happen, it’s also highly unlikely – which is why the fear gripping SSD owners is unwarranted.

One Comment

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  1. George Greenwood says:

    The power of the peer review. How many times was this article’s testing subjected to peer review?

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