Hard drive vendors make the case for hybrids

Some of the industry’s biggest hard drive manufacturers have formed a coalition to illustrate how hybrid technology can extend the capabilities of mobile PCs.

Hitachi, Seagate, Samsung, Toshiba, Fujitsu and Western Digital are all founding members of the Hybrid Storage Alliance. A hybrid hard drive contains a flash memory chip that stores data and applications. Because the processor can retrieve data from flash, the drive – which spins constantly in an ordinary computer – can stay asleep most of the time.

“We are not just a hard drive alliance,” said Seagate‘s Joni Clark, who serves as chairperson of the Hybrid Storage Alliance. “We’ve opened up our invitation for other folks who want to join in, promote and educate on the benefits of hybrid disk technology.” The alliance is hoping to bring some OEMs on board as well.

Adding non-volatile memory to the hard drive produces longer battery life, faster response time and greater system durability, she said, but power and performance benchmarks are still in progress. “We’re still trying to measure and get a handle on it,” she said. One of the reasons for forming the alliance, she said, was to take the guesswork out of the equation for IT managers and system builders.

What the alliance won’t be doing is writing standards or specifications of any kind, since those already exist. “We won’t be doing any interop testing or even promoting of individual products,” she said. “When you see a demonstration come out of this organization, it’s about the technology, not about who built it.”

Hard disks use a lot more power than hybrids do, said William Terrill, associate senior analyst with Info-Tech Research. “A hard disk is a mechanical device so it can break. This provides a way (to) shut that mechanical device down and store the data very quickly and recover it quickly.”

But why aren’t more PC users be jumping on the bandwagon? “PC users don’t shut their machines down as much as notebook users,” he said. If you drop your laptop and the hard drive is running, the head will bounce off the hard drive, scratch it and lose data.

“Those aren’t the issues you run across (with desktops),” he said. “It’ll eventually make it there, (but) for desktops it doesn’t bring a lot to the table right now.”

These types of high-speed RAM drives have been used for quite a few years as a front-end for disk storage in high-performance computing, he said, but they were outrageously expensive.

Now the cost is coming down and the technology is improving — but until the cost of flash memory drops even further and gets closer to the cost of hard drives, you’ll see this technology being used in hybrid mode, he said, which will probably add a manufacturing cost of $15 to $20 per drive.

“It’s not going to be a huge increment, and it’s going to be offset to a certain extent by the continuing dropping costs of the disk storage itself,” he said.

Microsoft will take advantage of the technology through its Windows ReadyDrive features in Vista, which will allow mobile PCs to boot up and resume from hibernation faster. But hybrid technology can be used with Linux or any other operating system, said Terrill. “Eventually you’re going to see handheld tablet PCs that don’t have a hard drive at all,” he said. “They’ll be using this technology.”

The main benefits of hybrid technology are power efficiency, faster response time and system durability, said Hitachi‘s Kelly O’Sullivan, who is co-chair of the alliance.

Booting from a flash memory chip eliminates the delay, resulting in faster boot-up and resume. Hybrid drives curtail platter spin time, which reduces power consumption, which in turn extends battery life. It’s also more durable because the drive platter isn’t contantly spinning.

IDC predicts hybrid hard disk drives will make up 35 per cent of all hard disk drives shipped with mobile devices by 2010.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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