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Rethinking Hard Drives And Storage

The hardware industry in itself is constantly changing, but one sector that has particularly evolved over the years is the disk storage sector. Nowadays, everybody from hardcore enthusiasts like we OCN-ers to our formerly computer illiterate grandparents are now juggling around with voluminous files, music, movies, and large collections of high-resolution digital pictures, so the overall demand for bigger, faster drives just keeps growing.

Hitachi, Seagate, Western Digital and all the other hard drives giants are well aware of this trend, and thanks to ferocious competition amongst themselves, great milestones have been reached. A terabyte of raw storage is now something that pretty much any willing person can afford, redundant and stripped storage via RAID is now within everybody's reach thanks to integration to many chipset solutions (think P35+ICH9R and later, nearly all Nvidia chipsets since the 5 series), drives are quieter, faster and more energy efficient than ever before, and most importantly, cost per gigabyte is rock bottom, below 0.20$/GB in many cases.

All this progress has me thrilled, however, I think that it is time to reconsider how we use our disk drives, and other means of storage on non-removable media. It seems that too much emphasis is put on making hard drives, bigger, faster, when maybe all we need to do is to think up and create mission-specific storage products, as to better suit the needs of every user and every machine, specially in these days where many people have more than one computer fulfilling more than one task.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by mission-specific drives. In my main system Fr0stbyte, on which I am typing this article at the moment, sits a Seagate 7200.10 with 320 gigs of capacity, or roughly 300 gigs once formatted. It's a mighty fine drive, and if you ask me it'll probably outlive me, but what saddens me about this drive is that it's just too damned big. No matter how hard I try, I just can't get past the 50 gigs of used disk space... I just can't! Now I hear you all asking: But Max, where are your gamez, your pr0nez, your warez, and your musicez?!?!?! Like many enthusiast and power users are doing these days, I have set up a home server, where all my files are safely stored on password protected SMB shares, which run off ext3 formatted drives. This keeps my files safe yet readily available from anywhere on my LAN via SMB, or even via the internetz with FTP or FTP over SSH. I only have 250 gigs or so of network attached storage for my personal use, and it's just enough for now. This is where the mission critical drives come in.

If I were to have it my way, I'd just trade off the 320 gigger inside my main rig, and use the money to buy two (or three, maybe four) higher performance single platter 40 gig drives. Those drives would be fast because of recent technology, stuff like perpendicular recording, insane cache memory sizes, and the lightning fast SATA interface, and it's single platter design would also make it cheaper (for obvious reasons), and most probably quieter and cooler, as less heads on less platters = less noise and heat from friction. Those would be so cheap that I could afford at least 2 which I would stripe up with RAID, resulting in a high performance OS storage setup much more suited to my needs. It would be far more scalable too: adding another drive to my stripe to improve performance further more doesn't mean adding another 320 gigs of space I would even get near to filling.

Another thing that should be considered is teaching the general public that hard drives aren't forever, and that data redundancy is important. I'll take an example close to me: my father takes lots of pictures with his digital cameras, and to store those he decided to buy a 250 gig disk which I share for him on my network: he stores pretty much everything he has on this disk, but it isn't redundant. What if this drive decided to bork it's bit even though it's less than a year old, like one of my drives did just a couple of months ago? You never know when it's gonna happen... and just like Murphy put it, it's going to happen at the worst possible moment. I urged my father to buy another identical drive to be safe... he replied by saying that it wasn't exactly on his lists of priorities, and that all he wanted was storage for the moment. Will he be pulling his hair out when I get an estimate done at a data recovery service place when his cross-Canada trip pictures get flushed a year from now? Yes.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying everybody is capable or willing to set up a RAID, but there is a huge market for safety in data, specially for products simpler and of less maintenance than those stupid USB hard drives and silly semi-automated backup software. I have a hard time believing that nobody has yet thought about a ready to deploy disk redundancy system that anybody can use. How hard is it to stack two laptop hard drives in a 3.5 inch form factor and add a controller that automatically mirrors everything, while still looking like a normal drive to whatever device uses it? It's a walk in the park for the boys down at Seagate's R&D, yet I haven't yet seen it at my local Best Buy.

So what are we waiting for? That's the problem with the hard drive's mostly linear evolution: many market segments are left unexploited, resulting in products that don't necessarily fit the consumer. There's more to storage then just writing bits on a disk, but it's up to the hard drive people to get cracking on new products.

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