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SSDs at the Office – Trials, Tribulations and Still Worth It

Date: February 15, 2013
Author(s): Brett Thomas

In advance of the busiest season at the office I work at, I wondered if adding an SSD to the slightly-aging Dell I use would offer a considerable gain in performance, and thus make the onslaught of work easier to deal with. Little did I realize, upgrading a Dell business PC requires a lot of patience, planning and snacks.



Introduction, Roadblocks & Acronis

SSDs have become synonymous with storage performance in recent years, and it’s hard to deny that almost any system can benefit from one.  In particular, they hit the performance issues of business applications right on the head – a multitude of small files, constant temp files and rarely defragmented drives.  However, due to increased cost and reduced storage space, SSDs have been and still are a hard sell for many businesses both small and large, particularly ones that depend on major PC manufacturers like Dell or HP to provide their desktop units. 

These “big-box” manufacturers make buying a standard suite of mid-class systems a simple and fairly cost-effective practice, which is why businesses love them.   However, anything outside of the base specification gets a painfully inflated price, including optical media, additional storage, RAM, or faster processors.   Those making the buying decisions are often unable to justify the price of many upgrades even if they see a benefit, and then have to sell it to management that very likely knows very little about the technical side of things.   By the time you get to an SSD, it’s a lost cause… the average business user knows exactly one thing about storage – you need more today than you did yesterday, and you will need more tomorrow than you do today.  That makes it difficult to request $200 premiums for half the storage. 

Looking around my own office, I am all too familiar with this situation.  We function on a suite of Dell Optiplex 780/790 units, all of which are far from old enough to replace but are already showing the slow-down of a couple years of service.  After all, they were never the top of the technology food-chain when they were made!  These systems ship standard with a 5400RPM Seagate Momentus drive (160GB at the time of purchase), with the next storage option adding $100 to the price.  The SSD option was right out the window at nearly $200 more per system (remember, businesses tend to buy in bulk!) for considerably less storage. 

Needless to say, 5400RPM for your OS drive is a guaranteed system bottleneck, particularly for businesses (which tend to use lots of small files).  Rob and I had even previously discussed that an SSD is often a far more noticeable upgrade than a new processor or more RAM.  An SSD of similar size now costs about $100, but could it extend the life of an aging system through another upgrade cycle?   And is it easy enough that most companies could find someone on staff knowledgeable enough to do it?

Kingston_SSDNow_V300_Press

 Those question put us in touch with the awesome folks at Kingston, which rules the roost right now for budget- to mid-grade SSDs with its new V300 line (check out our thorough review).  Within a few days, I was staring at a new 240GB SSDNow V300 “upgrade kit” designed for just this kind of project.

The road to Dell is paved with good intentions…

Let’s get one thing straight – nobody buys Dells because they are wonderful to work on.  In fact, one of the greatest reasons to buy one is because you never want to look at the insides of your computer.  The company crams a lot into a little package in my office – the Ultra-Small-Form-Factor (USFF) case makes everything a tidy little ball of heat that can manage to cut your fingers to ribbons despite having no sharp edges.  Importantly, these systems are not designed for DIY upgrades – there is no power connector available for a second hard drive, nor is there space to put one.  This means that you’re using eSATA or USB to perform the transfer, and it leads to an important recommendation: Get an external drive with at least as much storage space as your standard C: partition that can use eSATA.  They’re handy to have around the office anyways, and I sure wish I had one around when I tried this.

The 400Mbit/s (read that carefully – that’s 50MB/s) limitation of USB 2.0 is a killer here, and at least all Dells since 2009 have an eSATA port on the back.  You’ll be transferring a lot of data – over 100GB in my case – twice over.  That’s over an hour of transfer time alone if everything ran at perfect efficiency, which it doesn’t.  First of all, that 400Mbit is split across all devices on the bus, with each connected device reducing your available bandwidth.  Second, you’re transferring a lot of small files – this means your mechanical drive will not be running at peak efficiency to begin with, and you cannot just transfer block-by-block and sector-by-sector because of limitations we’ll talk about in a minute.

The Kingston SSD upgrade kit kindly supplies a bootable DVD of Acronis True Image HD.  Any regular reader of this site will know that we’re long-time fans of Acronis’ work, and the inclusion of such a well-known and supported tool is a wonderful extra.  Of course, if your systems are like mine and lack a DVD drive (that was an extra $139 per system, so we bought a single USB DVD to share since DVDs aren’t all that necessary anymore), you’ll need to connect one through the USB bus – which goes back to the above point about the USB bottleneck.

A little Windows surgery

So, you have your SSD, you have an eSATA external drive, and you have your DVD drive.  We’re all set, right?  Not quite, especially on Windows Vista or 7. Thanks to the recovery partition present on both Dell and HP systems, your C: drive is not actually a bootable partition.  Instead, all of the boot files are hidden on the recovery partition (which is also hidden).  So, we are going to have to move those files over to your C: drive to make it bootable, unless you want to really get to know the Windows Recovery Environment. 

Why not just keep the recovery partition   Well, you can, but there really isn’t any point.  See, the recovery partitions are designed to bring the machine back to its factory default state, which it won’t ever be truly able to do once you’ve changed out the hard drive (the sector numbers and sizes will be different, even if everything else was exactly the same!)  The recovery partitions and Dell’s diagnostic tools (contained in a separate hidden 30MB partition at the end) are both dead weight on your new system.  So, smile – you get 15GB of storage back!

Anyhow, back to making your C: partition a bootable one for Windows Vista/7:

  1. Right click on “Computer” in the start menu and click “Manage.” 
  2. Click on “Disk Management” under “Storage.”
  3. Highlight the partition BEFORE the C:\ drive, likely labeled “Recovery” or something similar.
  4. Right click and “assign drive letter” – any will do, but we’ll use R:\ for “recovery.”
  5. Open up an administrator command prompt.
  6. Enter:  reg unload HKLM\BCD00000000 (yes, that’s 8 zeros after).  It may error, that’s okay if so – we’ll know if that’s an actual error if you can’t copy something in step 8.
  7. Enter:  robocopy r:\ c:\ bootmgr
  8. Enter:  robocopy r:\Boot c:\Boot /s (if this errors, repeat step 6 – you probably typed one too few or many 0’s)
  9. Profit.

That should do it!  You can now remove the R: drive letter if you want, but it’s not necessary.  The C: drive is now a fully functional Windows installation unto itself, no longer requiring the crappy recovery stuff to be dragged alongside (once the MBR of the hard drive is fixed to point to the right place, of course). 

Finally, an extra word of caution – if you have BitLocker encryption enabled on your machine, you must disable it at this time.  If you do not, the entire cloning process will fail.  You can re-enable BitLocker once everything else is done.

With that said, it’s time to pop in the DVD and boot into Acronis.

A backup is worth a thousand words

The first thing I tried to do when I got into Acronis was use the “clone” tool to simply clone my current drive to the SSD.  Let me save you the hassle right now – DON’T.  It’s a waste of a lot of time, and will end with the fabled “Sector 63” error that still to this day dots Acronis’ forums.  It doesn’t work, because the MBR on a standard hard drive is 512b sectors (even modern 4096b drives emulate this feature) while an SSD is 4096b across the board.  This causes a failure on Sector 63 (the last reserved MBR sector) every time, but that error won’t materialize until you’ve already wasted time through the whole copying process. PS – Acronis, if you’re reading, this is why that error happens – nobody on your tech support forums seems to know!

Acronis_True_Image

Instead, we’re going to make a backup of your current C: partition and put it on an intermediate drive – this is where the eSATA drive comes in (you do notice I said drive, and not just enclosure, right?!).  You will need to go to “Backup”, select your OS partition ONLY (NOT the recovery partition before it), and back it up to a file on the external drive.  I recommend no compression here as it saves considerable time and this is a temporary backup, but if you want a permanent backup anyhow then you may wish to add compression to preserve disk usage.  Do NOT use “Sector by sector” as it’s basically a waste of space here, and adds even more time to the process.  We aren’t transferring a perfect clone to the same-sized partition and a change we’re soon going to make will remap all of the files anyways, so there’s absolutely no upside to this.

This process will take a WHILE.  Go make yourself a sandwich or something.  To give you an idea, the process took about 3 hours on my system for a 100GB partition with no compression over USB 2.0 (told you it was slow!).

Moving to the SSD, Recovery Notes & Final Thoughts

Once the backup is made, it’s time to get our hands dirty.  Shut the system down, pop open the case and swap the old hard drive out for the SSD.  Close it up, hit the power button and…

immediately proceed to enter your BIOS (“Setup” for those who are uninitiated) by doing the tap-dance of hitting Del or F1 (or both) in rapid succession.  You’re going to go to your storage settings (in Dell’s most recent BIOSes, this is simply called “Storage”) and make sure that your “method” is set to RAID/AHCI or AHCI and not Legacy, IDE, PATA, ATAPI or anything else that might be there.  AHCI stands for “Advanced Host Controller Interface” and it is a HUGE step up in how hard drives communicate with systems, and is a big part of the SSD speed boost.  All RAID modes support AHCI automatically, so if you don’t see AHCI specifically then you can set your system to RAID mode instead.  Don’t worry, it won’t mess anything up if you’re not using RAID.

With that change, you are now safe to boot back into Acronis.  However, before we can get to restoring your partition, you’re going to need to prep and add your new drive – so go down to Utilities and select Add Drive, and choose your SSD.  You can then create a new partition on the drive – I simply made a basic NTFS partition that takes up the whole drive.  Save your changes and let it do its magic, and we can move on to the next step.

Our final task in Acronis is to restore the backup partition to the newly created NTFS partition, and it’s pretty straightforward.  Go to “Recover,” then select your backup file.  You’ll need to choose where to put the partition next, which is a  little counter-intuitive because it doesn’t make that step perfectly clear – the menu language makes it sound like you’re still talking about the backup file when you’re really talking about where to restore to.  So make SURE that you are selecting the NEW partition that you just created in this step, and not the drive where the backup file is contained (or bad things will happen).

Acronis will then ask if you want to “Restore the MBR” from the backup, and you definitely want it to.  Again lacking in the documentation, Acronis is not actually going to restore the original MBR (which would be bad) – what it’s asking is whether it should create a new one for the drive based on the new partition (or partitions, if you have more than one) that you’re restoring, thus making it bootable.  If you do not select this option, the drive will not boot and you will need to either repeat this whole process or grab your Windows DVD (which, if you’re like me, you don’t have because Dell installed it for you) to fix it.

Now, it’s time to click “Start” and go make yourself another sandwich.  Once again, Acronis will get to work on its tedious process of moving files over your USB or eSATA bus, and it will take every bit as long as the original backup process did.  For those following along at home, that’s about 6 hours total copy time (between backup and restore) for 100GB over USB 2.0 on my system – that’s nearly an entire day that the system is down.  However, when I re-tested using a 1TB 7200RPM drive in an eSATA enclosure for my intermediary drive, that time shaved down considerably (about 20m per transfer).

After the restore is complete, the system should be bootable – remove the external drive and DVD, and reboot.  When it fires up, you may see that the C: partition is the same size as it was on the old drive.  You can reclaim your new space by simply going back into the Disk Management tool (where we originally revealed the recovery partition), right-clicking on your OS partition and clicking “Expand.”  In three different runs, I had differing outcomes as to whether this step was necessary or already performed for me by Acronis.  Once finished, you are ready to re-enable BitLocker (if desired) and move on to the next machine!

A couple quick “recovery” notes

Just in case not everything goes as smoothly as it should when you reboot to your new SSD, I figured it may not hurt to talk about recovery fixes.  Most likely, this issue will arise from boot files being copied incorrectly from the original system, though it’s possible that Acronis may not have rebuilt your MBR correctly.  To fix these, you simply need your Windows Vista / Windows 7 DVD and … oh, you bought a pre-built with pre-installed OS, and the only disks you have are the branded “recovery” ones, huh?

Fear not!  You can download the DVD image (in ISO format, if you care) straight from Dell’s partner Digital River, and then burn it to DVD (or even better, put it on USB!) using the Microsoft tool designed just for this. SP1 is even already included, as you may be unable to recover an installation that has SP1 installed by using original media.  I keep a bootable USB of my office’s installation handy at all times for emergencies.

Once you have recovery media, you can boot to it and let Windows try to repair your installation.  This most likely will work if you let it – the repair will require three separate reboots and re-runs of the tool though, as it only fixes one thing per step.  Alternatively, you can use the “recovery environment command prompt” to fix your hard drive by navigating to it with the following commands:

  1. Type:  c:
  2. Type:  bootrec /fixboot
  3. Type:  bootrec /fixmbr
  4. Type:  bootrec /rebuildbcd

This should fix the problem.

Was it worth it?  Yep.

In performing the incredibly long backup/restore process and having several failed attempts under my belt, I now have the “How to move a pre-installed proprietary computer vendor OS to an SSD” concept nailed down.  With an eSATA external enclosure that has a 7200RPM drive in it, the entire process takes under an hour instead of over six – a tremendous difference that brings it within the realm of feasibility for most businesses.

Of course, even an hour is still downtime and SSDs are not free, so this needs to come with some benefits for the system – and boy, does it ever.  Gamers look at things like level loading times and OS boot-up times to weigh the benefits, but offices have a much different benchmark – loading up a part of the Microsoft Office Suite or opening up Intuit Quickbooks can take what feels like eons.  Adobe reader, a simple piece of software installed on most business machines, can leave you sitting and waiting as it accesses all the myriad files necessary to finally load up that PDF you clicked on.  If you bounce routinely between these types of files, you often get stuck in the habit of leaving the software pre-loaded and just waiting for you to try and use a document so you’re not stuck waiting for the ridiculous load multiple times per day. 

Kingston_SSDNow_V300_Bundle

On an SSD, all of these giant pains go away.  My wait for MS Excel went from about 10s to under 1s.  Quickbooks, which used to take more than 1m to load (yes, over a full minute!) is now at about 20s.  The OS itself feels snappier in most every way, and obviously the OS boot time is drastically reduced as well (though I never felt it loaded all THAT slowly).  It’s enough of a difference to make me feel like this system would hold out an extra year or two on my desk, which is a big savings.

Further, I have the ability to put the SSD in a new system if and when I do feel inclined to upgrade, saving me from paying the upgrade charge at that time as well.  A large enough drive would easily last for two systems.  For my needs, 240GB is plenty but 128GB would likely not be… but for security purposes, my office requires each desktop to hold most of its own data and we don’t allow cloud applications or storage.  Depending on how much your office machines store vs. run from the network/cloud, 128GB may be plenty to get away for a couple upgrades!

Overall, I think this project is well worth the time and investment from a business standpoint, due to the low cost of SSDs now.  If you’re looking at 5-10 systems, it can be painful to think of tossing another $500-1,000 at already existing hardware – but delaying or even skipping a round of spending $4,000-8,000 for a new suite of systems that won’t function that much faster than your current ones is money well spent. 

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