SSDs have really come a long way in affordability, capacity, performance, and endurance. And maintenance of an SSD is now a non-issue for most modern SSDs running Windows 7 or higher due to support of the TRIM command (basically garbage collection of deleted files). But whereas traditional spinning hard drives could care less if old data is left on them before overwriting it, an SSD has to first purge the data from a NAND flash cell before it can write anything new to it.
The performance of an SSD will degrade over time if it is reformatted, as the next OS on the drive (completely oblivious to what data was written to the NAND flash cells previously) will keep having to clean up the mess from the old OS before it can write new data. This is normally not an issue because of the TRIM command is used by Windows 7 (and OS X) to purge those no-longer-used cells. But what happens when you reformat the SSD hosting your OS? How will the next OS know to completely purge the old data no longer needed from the previous OS?
That’s where a command called Secure Erase comes in. It is a standard ATA command (supported by basically every SSD out there) and is OS agnostic. Running the Secure Erase command purges ALL data from the drive (not just writing zero’s over the data, which is what you’d typically do for hard drives). It also restores the SSD’s original performance capabilities (since it doesn’t have to clean up old data).
The problem is, there’s no easy way to initiate that command. It’s really frustrating, trust me.
While some companies like Intel, Samsung, and OCZ supply some vendor specific bootable software utilities that can run the Secure Erase command, for any other SSDs (without such fore-thinking manufacturers) it is a royal pain. I’d been looking for just a simple tool to Secure Erase any SSD I had (since I had a handful that I cycle through my various systems) and until recently came up empty-handed. HDDErase was the commonly referenced DOS-based command line program I had tried numerous times before, but never got it to work correctly (of course, this could just as well have been user error on my part).
But at last, a universal SSD Secure Erase tool! And it is free! And runs on it’s own bootable OS! And most importantly it is easy to use! No command-line kung-fu needed. This fantastic little tool (which actually I should have known about before anyway) is called Parted Magic. You can freely download the bootable ISO here, burn it to a CD, boot into the Linux LiveCD environment, and Secure Erase to your heart’s content!
You can find a tutorial from Corsair on using Parted Magic to perform a Secure Erase of an SSD here. You may run into an issue as I did where the drive is in a “frozen” or “locked” state and won’t allow you to run the Secure Erase command. The program will ask if you want to put your computer into sleep mode to resolve this, but it doesn’t quite work when running from a LiveCD (I tried). To get around this issue, simply disconnect the power connector from the SSD (don’t worry, it’s ok!), plug it back in, wait a few seconds, and relaunch the program to retry the secure erase. You’ve now Secure Erased your SSD and brought it back to out-of-the-box, brand new performance characteristics!
The other big benefit of Secure Erase (hint: it’s in the name) is the fact that a Secure Erase does a pretty darn good job of securely erasing content from your SSD. So, if you are selling an SSD or disposing of a computer with an SSD in it (hey now, why don’t you save the SSD?) make sure you run a Secure Erase first. Unlike traditional hard drives where zeroing out the drive or random data overwrites can do a decent job of removing any trace of your personal data, the information stored on an SSD tends to remain readable long after.
In closing, while SSDs have largely become the same in terms of hard drives in proper care and feeding thanks to the widespread adoption of the TRIM command, reformatting an SSD or re-installing an operating system on an SSD should always be preceded by a Secure Erase. After all, you want the best performance from an SSD you can get, and using Secure Erase can make it so.