Hybrid Hard Drives

I was reading some articles this morning and I saw one referenced on Techmeme by John Dvorak called Will Vista make an impact? Commentary: It’s just not the same as earlier Windows releases. In it he describes how Microsoft is slipping on promoting it’s own products and technology, specifically, [tag]hybrid hard drives[/tag], a device that is needed to see benefits from Windows Readyboost, Windows Readydrive and some other technologies. So, I thought I would post an article about hybrid hard drives that contained what little I already knew with what I could find online.

It’s possible that some buzz will evolve, but it’s beginning to look like a pretty standard news story rather than anything like the marketing events we’ve seen in the past. I have to assume that the promoters who put on a worldwide show for Windows 95, for example, have long since left the company.

One of the interesting things I’m seeing is the relative ignorance of the computer-using public in general about the system requirements for Vista. Most obvious is the complete lack of knowledge regarding the next generation hard disk that is required to make Vista perform well.

Knowledgeable folks who should know about these drives never heard of them except in some relation to laptop battery life which seems to be the only promotion done so far. The only reason I know so much about them was by an odd coincidence of moderating a panel that discussed the drives in great detail. Source: MarketWatch

A hybrid drive is a new type of large-buffer computer hard drive, it’s different from standard hard drives because it uses a large non-volatile flash memory to cache data during normal use, such a drive developed by Samsung has a 2 gig cache. Windows Vista can use this cache for non-volatile data storage, so the platters of the hard drive are not spinning all of the time, as they do in current hard drives. There are three main reasons this will help Windows Vista run faster, including, decreased power consumption, improved reliability, and a faster boot process. This will help most users as the drives are only used between 2 and 10%, in some studies, of normal usage, there will be situations where more drive access will be needed, because of opening and closing of files, etc, and the benefit will not be as great.

So, the drives platters will be docked most of the time, allowing for less power consumption, mainly beneficial to notebook users, the hard drives will not put off as much heat, again, mainly useful to notebook users, less wear and tear on the drives, so they should last much longer, less noise, faster performance since most accesses will be to the flash and not the hard drive and an almost instant boot up process. As is the case of the Samsung drive, boot up data for the operating system can be contained completely on the flash portion of the drive allowing for boot up times of less than ten seconds. It has even been said that since the drives will not be running as hot, they should be able to increase the maximum rotation of the platters to allow for faster burst speeds than the 15,000 rpm limit on SCSI drives or the 10,000 rpm limit on some ide drives.

Some drawbacks I have seen include increased pricing, and the seek time of some file accesses will be increased because the platters will be at rest when a file from the hard drive is requested. If you have been in computers very long, you will remember the sound of some of the first scsi drives spinning up when they were accessed and the extra delay you had in bringing your system back up after it went to sleep. It has also been mentioned that there will be possible security problems, since the flash is separate it will not be automatically cleaned by some of these data cleaners businesses use to clean data from their old systems and it could possible be used by malware to hide from anti spyware and anti virus programs.

Security conscious organizations are taught to be very aware of data left on hard drives when PCs are disposed of. However, [Flash] memory is nonvolatile, so a company could end up with up to 512Mbytes of data lying around in memory on the motherboard or on the side of the drive.

Few companies own the industrial-scale degaussing equipment that can instantly be used to fry the data on a drive, and instead rely on software that laboriously overwrites the magnetic surface.

Another security implication of hybrid drives is that, depending on the interface between the operating system and the drive, it may also be possible to hide malicious code in the Flash memory that is not detected by virus scanners. Source: Applied Miscellany

An article from Cnet in 2005 discusses some of the benefits as the drives were first being developed.

Typically, hard drives rotate. Hard drive motors, along with LCD screens, are two of the largest consumers of power inside a laptop.

In the hybrid, the drive rarely spins. In the prototype hybrid being shown off Monday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, the drive spins only about 30 to 45 seconds every half hour, said Ivan Greenberg, director of strategic marketing for Samsung Semiconductor. The goal is to get it to 30 to 45 seconds for an hour.

“The traditional hard drive takes up about 10 to 15 percent of the battery power of your notebook,” Greenberg said. Thus, in a notebook with a four hour battery, the hybrid drive could extend battery life by about 36 minutes. Source: Cnet

This post from PCWorld references Superfetch, a term I don’t think I had seen before, but apparently it is the portion that manages the memory and will eventually learn which you will need loaded and will copy that data to the flash drive.

Three HHD-related Windows features you need to know: Superfetch, ReadyBoost, and ReadyDrive.

SuperFetch, a new memory manager for Windows, uses available memory to proactively cache data that you’re likely to need. Eventually, it learns which applications and data you habitually use and when you use them, and it does this on a per-user basis. I’ll be interested to see if SuperFetch works well enough to justify adding lots of memory to desktop machines.

As Denny Arar explains, ReadyBoost makes more memory available to SuperFetch by creating new memory pages on USB flash drives and the flash memory in hybrid hard disks. Source: Today @ PCWorld

The benefits I see are great and I can’t wait to get a Windows Vista system with one of these drives to try out, if my older, still fast but extremely hot laptop had some of these drives, I would probably still be using it every day. If anyone wants to send me one, I’d surely give it a good once or twice over. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, Windows Vista will be able to use USB drives for cache memory using Windows Readyboost, you will actually be able to leave it plugged in and boot from it, and, if you need to remove it, nothing will be lost as it will just be caching files that are already on the drive.