You & Your Hard Drive in the 21st Century

Posted on April 29, 2008

If 10 years ago someone said “One day your wife will carry an extra hard drive in her purse”, I’d have rolled my eyes. On a recent trip to pick up a hard drive (to replace the piece of crap that died in my MacBook Pro; so far every Apple laptop we’ve owned has had an OEM drive die) I saw, to my amazement, this:

CaseLogic, the folks that made those CD cases we all used to have in our cars, is now making neoprene sleeves for 2.5″ hard drive enclosures. This is telling to me… CaseLogic decided that there was enough of a market to start peddling these. This says something about modern storage, says something about the expected reliability and mobility of spinning storage, and says something about the capacity of the ever more affordable flash storage in USB keys and such. And, the strange thing is, I just had to buy one.

But wait there’s more! The wall of 3.5″ enclosures had been pushed aside by a giant selection of 2.5″ enclosures, most of them powered by the USB line alone, no need for an exteral DC plug. And in the corner of the rack was this interesting toy:

This is a Thermaltake BlacX HDD Docking Station, it accomidates 2.5″ and 3.5″ SATA drives…. like a damned Nintendo cartridge! And, the really funny thing is you’ll find yourself blowing dust off the SATA paddle before inserting… oh the memories.

Most geeks, like myself, probly have a growing stack of SATA drives that aren’t terribly old but have fallen by the way side as storage capacities have sky rocketed and prices plummeted in the last 3 years. Sure, there are lots of snazy USB/Firewire/eSATA enclosures out there, but generally the drives aren’t worth it… but no longer is this a problem! Your old hard drives are now a very easy to use removable media for all your backup or temporary storage needs, no adapters or sleds required, just dust it off and slide it into the dock.

These two things, combined with the fact that your grandma’s new Dell is probly going to have a 1TB drive, something that didn’t seem possible in a 3.5″ form factor just a couple of years ago, and some hope that aerial density will provide 2.5″ with capacities well beyond 300GB in the future, as well as the coming wave of SSD solutions…. storage is looking to be at the peak of a wave thats going to crash out a lot of interesting things in the next couple of years.

Of course, what concerns me is that while bus speeds increase and capacities grow, throughput in real world situations is still low. 30MB/s is still considered pretty good in real-world usage because those poor little heads can only move so fast. Tiered storage combined with RAID is interesting considering the increases in arial density because the outer cylinders contain so much data, but with COW filesystems growing such as ZFS the data is increasingly spread around the platters if left unchecked which leads to slower transfer rates outside of the benchmarks. Bigger buffers can help, but in random workloads prefetch doesn’t help as the drive doesn’t know what sector to prefetch.

It wasn’t log ago that I was begging a storage vendor to keep sending me 72GB drive because the rebuild times for a failed 167GB drive scared me. Gigabit speed networks increase the utilization of storage over the network, but again, those drive heads can only move so fast. I’m really interested to see what comes in the next couple years to try and catch up the random throughput of drives with the capacities. Will SSD be the solution or can spinning media vendors pull a rabbit out of their hats? Unless they do, my hunch is that in 10 years enterprise systems will be shipping with SAS SSD drives and relegate spinning media to secondary storage.

Any way you look at it, some kool stuff is coming; storage geeks stay vigilant!