New hybrid drives promise faster Vista laptops, PCs, servers

Vista's support for flash-assisted hybrid hard drives sets the stage for faster, less power-hungry computers

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Because disk I/O speeds haven’t kept up with CPU horsepower gains, it was just a matter of time before storage vendors turned to flash. “Vista was certainly the catalyst,” said IDC analyst John Rydning, but the use of hybrid drives could well expand beyond Windows systems.

A related Vista feature, ReadyBoost, is a read cache that allows Windows to cache memory pages that won’t fit into main memory on a USB flash drive. Because the flash device could be removed at anytime, however, unique data cannot be stored on it and data is encrypted for security reasons.

Panabaker said, “The final solution is ReadyDrive,” a write cache that can cache portions of the operating system to facilitate faster boot up and resume times. “I would expect to see a 30% boot time savings [using ReadyDrive],” he said. During normal operations, data retrieved from the cache will be transferred two to three times as fast as from disk, Panabaker said. Samsung claims that the cache in its hybrid drive is 50 times faster than disk.

Not all applications will benefit equally from hybrid disks, however. The biggest performance improvement comes from faster seek times – the time it takes to locate data on disk. Those latencies, more than transfer rates, tend to be the bottleneck. Therefore, some applications that read sequential strings of data – such as video – won’t see as much benefit.

Windows, however, is more transactional. It tends to trickle log files and other data even when systems are idle, keeping drives spinning. Placing that data in the write cache allows disk drives to power down. That could reduce power consumption by up to 90% in some cases and increase usable system life by 8% to 12%, said Don Barnetson, director of flash marketing at Samsung Semiconductor Inc. in San Jose.

Hybrid disk drives will also be more reliable. “The hard disk drive is able to withstand shocks when it’s in an off state. We can improve the reliability up to five times,” he said.

While hard drive makers advocate a hybrid disk drive that places flash memory cache with the physical disk drive, Intel thinks the cache should be on the motherboard. Its Santa Rosa notebook platform will include 256MB of flash and can look like a ReadyBoost device or a hybrid disk accessible to ReadyDrive, said Kishore Rao, product line manager.

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A standard hard disk includes both magnetic storage platters and a small DRAM buffer. A hybrid drive adds flash memory, which is used as a nonvolatile data cache. Data in the cache can be retrieved faster and reduces use of the hard disk, cutting power consumption.

Source: Microsoft Corp.

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