Life Expectancy of a Drive: HDD, SSD, and Flash

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Storage experts know that there are two kinds of drive in this world—those that have already failed, and those that will fail sooner or later. It’s the nature of storage media that it will not last forever. Backups are needed to save mission critical data, but drive failures can still be inconvenient or, more importantly, cause performance issues and interrupt business continuity. Knowing the life expectancy of drives can save your organization hassle and make it easier to plan and budget for replacement cycles. Here’s what you need to know about the life expectancy of hard disk drives (HDDs), solid-state drives (SSDs), and flash memory.

Drive Life Expectancy at-a-Glance

The following chart shows the planned life expectancy of HDDs, SSDs, and flash memory. Actual life expectancy will vary based on a wide range of conditions, environmental factors, and usage.

Type of Drive Planned Life Expectancy
Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) 4-7 years
Solid-State Drives (SSDs) 5-10 years
Flash  10 years average use

HDDs: How Long Do They Last?

Hard disk drives are mechanical devices that rely on moving parts—spinning platters, read/write heads, and actuator arms—to store data. Their lifespan can be reduced by physical mistreatment, as the moving components can be damaged by bumps and shocks commonly experienced by drives mounted in laptops and mobile devices.

Generally, manufacturers say to expect HDDs to last from four to seven years before it starts to fail. Typical HDD demise is caused by failure of one of the moving parts: torn heads, scratched platters, or stuck motors, for example. Hard drives in environmentally controlled office spaces are more likely to experience their full expected lifespan than those in mobile devices, but even those can be foreshortened by overheating, excessive vibrations, or unexpected electrical shocks.

Most non-mechanical HDD failures display the same symptoms as a mechanical failure: a useless drive. Early indications that an HDD is failing may come in the form of error messages, file structure corruption, or boot errors. They may also show more tangible physical symptoms like noisy operation. Data can often be recovered from failed drives, but it varies widely based on cause—data lost to filing system errors or logic failures is more likely to be recovered than data lost to a physical hard drive failure.

SSDs: How Long Do They Last?

Solid-state drives have no moving parts, giving them a longer life expectancy than mechanical hard drives. They’re also faster and more resilient to vibrations, shakes, and drops—but these benefits come at a premium, because SSDs also cost more than comparable HDDs.

Manufacturers say to expect SSDs to be operational for five to 10 years. That life expectancy, however, comes with a big caveat, as SSDs have limited read/write cycles. In other words, the more you use them, the shorter they will last.

Most SSDs use NAND flash memory chips that contain a transistor grid that saves data in cells as a binary value: a one, or a zero. Some of these chips are capable of holding more than one bit per cell, and multilayer SSDs built with these chips offer performance benefits over single layer cell SSDs. But the more bits a drive can store per cell, the fewer write cycles it can sustain. To extend the life of SSDs, most NAND flash controllers use wear-leveling features to evenly spread writes across a block of cells.

An SSD’s actual useful lifespan can be measured in something called Program/Erase (P/E) cycles. A P/E cycle is the process of erasing and writing data to NAND chips associated within a block. The fewer bits per NAND cell—the number of layers—the more P/E cycles a SSD can sustain.

SSD Type Estimated P/E Cycles
Single Level Cell (SLC)  100,000 
Multi Level Cell (MLC) 10,000 
Triple Level Cell (TLC) 3,000
Quad Level Cell (QLC) 1,000

Another benefit SSDs have over mechanical hard drives is that you can calculate their life expectancy based on usage. These calculations are measured in terabytes written over time (TBW) and drive writes per day (DWPD), which counts the total amount of data that can be written over the lifetime of an SSD. For example, a SSD with a 365 TBW means you can write 365 terabytes of data on the SSD before replacing it.

SSDs may not give any warning before failure, but slow performance, frequent freezing or crashing, or disappearing files and folders can be early indications that a solid-state drive is nearing the end of its useful lifespan.

Learn more about calculating the life span of an SSD.  

Flash Memory: How Long Does it Last?

All SSDs are flash drives, but not all flash drives are SSDs. Flash can also be used in other storage media such as USB drives, SD cards, and in mobile phones and digital cameras. But because SSDs use flash, there are similarities in how their lifespan is calculated and in the factors that affect it—the lifespan of flash drives is based on the number of P/E cycles it can sustain.

Manufacturers say to expect flash drives to last about 10 years based on average use. But life expectancy can be cut short by defects in the manufacturing process, the quality of the materials used, and how the drive connects to the device, leading to wide variations. Depending on the manufacturing quality, flash memory can withstand between 10,000 and a million P/E cycles.

Flash drives don’t always give warning before failure. Early indications, however, might include a significant decrease in read and write speeds, reduced available storage capacity, or corruption/failure to read errors. Data cannot be recovered from failed flash drives.

Bottom Line: Taking Drive Life Expectancy into Consideration

There’s more data being captured and stored than ever before. At the same time, there are more ways available to store it. Different types of data storage drives offer differing features and disadvantages, from performance to cost. The one thing they all have in common, regardless of type, is that they will not last forever. A good backup and recovery plan is the bare minimum—most businesses should have several redundancies in place for mission critical data. But drive failures can still have an impact on the enterprise, and planning for them can cut down on inconveniences and ensure business continuity. Keeping inventory of all hardware assets and planning ahead for replacement cycles can go a long way toward making sure your business is not caught flat-footed by the unexpected or untimely failure of a critical storage drive.

Read next: Understanding Multilayer SSDs: SLC, MLC, TLC, QLC, and PLC

Don Hall
Don Hall
Don Hall is a contributing writer to Enterprise Storage Forum, where he covers data storage technology, storage hardware and software, and data networking. He worked for more than two decades as an IT Supervisor for the federal government and as IT Operations Supervisor for an IT Military Command managing programmers, cybersecurity staff, and infrastructure and networking personnel. Previously he worked as an application programmer. Don earned a B.S. in Business Information Systems from San Diego State University and has certificates in Technical Communication and web development with an emphasis in Java/Open Source. He has also had an active CompTIA Security + (ce) since 2011, and a Network +(ce) since 2015.

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