A Hybrid Is In Your Future. Not In Your Garage! In Your PC!
The future belongs to hybrids. No, not those overpriced wanky little cars that use all sorts of batteries and crazy tricks to return half the fuel mileage of a 1992 Geo Metro XFI. Hybrid hard drives! They are certainly the wave of the future and you'll likely have one in your PC sooner than later.
What is a hybrid hard drive? It's exactly what the name implies, it uses two different storage systems within one box. Just like the Prius uses an internal combustion engine and batteries as necessary, the hybrid hard drive will use its spinning platters or non-volatile flash memory (just like the one in your digital camera or USB key) to maximize speed, performance and energy efficiency.
The hard drive in my computer is constantly spinning at 7200 rpm. Western Digital Raptors spin at 10,000 rpm, and some specialty hard drives go to 15,000 rpm or more. Considering that 10,000 rpm is usually the redline for sportsbikes and a Formula One car will usually go around the circuit at about 15,000 to 18,000 rpm, you know that this is one crazy fast speed to have spinning metal flying around. If you could keep those platters spinning with the lid off, you could likely slice prosciutto hair-thin on them!
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One of the advantages hybrids have is that most of the time the platters are still. They are just sitting there as if the power was off. They're only spun up when the various algorithms determine that they need to read or write something that doesn't belong on the flash.
The flash acts as a buffer, taking care of most of the second by second read writes you need. If the buffer starts getting maxed out with data, it will spin up the platters and dump most of it, or even all of it, onto the conventional medium. If you want to pull up a .pdf Ebook you haven't touched for six months, the platters will spin up, place the file into the flash buffer and let you read it. All of this is completely transparent to the user. You would never know that you're using a hybrid, even if there is a power failure, as the flash will hold all your currently cached data until you reboot.
Unfortunately available only under (gag) Vista's ReadyDrive technology, hybrids are relatively restricted in distribution right now. However, when we consider that hybrids can take advantage of SuperFetch and ReadyBoost to pre-buffer often used program instructions, these factors can give hybrids such a significant theoretical performance advantage over conventional hard drives, that it won't make me convert to Vista, but it will make me clamor even louder for these choice techs to be ported to XP SP3!
The list of benefits goes on and on. Lower power consumption, heat and noise levels, plus better reliability and faster overall performance. Flash memory is much faster than conventional hard drives so if you are writing and reading only from the buffer, the access times are much faster.
Whenever there are pros there are always cons, and hybrid hard drives are no exception. If you need to access data on the platter, you have to account for the drive to spin up to speed before you can get it. Flash memory is also rated at much fewer read write cycles so you might wear your flash down to a nub while the platters are still happy and functioning like they were when they left the factory. This really wouldn't be much of a factor for typical usage, but might show up in heavy server, video use, etc. Furthermore, if you have a catastrophic failure, you can usually recover data from a crashed hard drive, but not from flash. Flash will hold data in a power failure situation but not one where the flash is actually damaged.
Samsung, Western Digital and other major manufacturers already offer hybrids for sale. The price point is up at the rarefied extreme prosumer, enthusiast and gamer level, but like everything else in the PC industry, the prices will soon plummet once the novelty wears off. You can already find a Samsung hybrid 160GB drive for under $150 at some retailers while others have it at nearly $300, so as with everything else in the PC biz, it pays to shop around.
Should you rush out and buy a hybrid today? Hold yer horses. Hybrids are not quite ready for primetime. The overall performance is actually slower than conventional hard drives. The only real advantage seems to be when booting from flash which reduces Windows' current interminable borefest down to a few seconds. Most current, everyday conventional data read writes end up accessing the platters, accounting for the lethargic performance. When the platters are spinning, they're only at 5,400 rpm in the Samsung which is a ten year old spec. So the state of the art currently is far from being state of the art at all.
Then again, this is the PC biz, so you can bet that newer zoomier models are just around the corner. As flash prices continue to drop, the size of the buffer will rise and performance will skyrocket. There will also likely be models where the platters don't stop spinning at all. This would eliminate the advantages of lower heat and noise, but it would certainly work wonders for performance.
Personally I'm salivating at the thought of an all flash hard drive that does away with the platters completely. Right now, it might cost as much as the rest of your system. But someday soon, I'm sure I'll have one!