Solid state society: The future of common data storage

Fifty-one years ago, IBM did something amazing, something that changed the world and kick-started the computing revolution twenty years before Intel and Apple and Microsoft and everyone else declared they were open for business: IBM invented the hard drive.

A monster of a machine, a behemoth, one ton of spinning metal the size of a fridge held exactly five megabytes via 50 two foot platters and a bunch of controller hardware and buffer memory. This hard drive was the first of it’s kind, and helped spawn an entire industry of data storage; not only was it faster and easier to use and maintain compared to tape media, it was also expensive and only a few companies could afford this.

The technology over the next few years shrank and increased in performance, and stories of “wash machines” dancing across the data center were well known. More and more companies started buying them to replace or supplement their tape drives, and eventually tape died out in the commercial sector.

Eventually, the three or four home computing revolutions come and go, and the two portable device revolutions come and go. Wash machines become small external units, those external drives become internal (5.25″ full height), and then they become smaller (3.5″) and smaller (2.5″) and smaller (1.8″) yet. Megabytes become gigabytes become tens and hundreds of gigabytes and finally, as of a few months ago, terabytes.

All of this technology ultimately works the same way: spinning platters with magnetic heads reading what an IBM engineer once named “magnetic milkshake.” The one single major flaw in this design is that anything that moves will eventually break down. Spinning drives slower won’t decrease the wear and tear, and neither will cooling them; and new bearing designs? They decrease noise and some wear and tear, but do not prevent mechanical failure.

We’ve invented new technologies, such as redundant arrays of inexpensive disks (RAID) to both increase performance and decrease the chances of mechanical failure eating your data. A suitably sized RAID 6 array can have two drive failures before you risk data loss. An array of, say, six to ten drives for such an array is also huge and outside the realm of most people; and I haven’t seen Apple issue iPods with RAID arrays yet.

In addition to all of this, the magnetic heads have to move across the platter to read and write specific areas, which increase the time it takes to read random data (sequentially read data suffers from this less). If mechanical failure was the major issue of this design, seek times is the secondary issue.

In 1984, a Dr. Fujio Masuoka invented flash memory: a non-volatile memory that can be used as data storage in the same way you’d use tape or hard drives, and flash has no moving parts nor does it use large amounts of power like hard drives do because of spinning platters. You see flash everywhere now, in your cell phones, in your digital cameras, in your hand held game systems, and also in your Wiis. We call drives built out of this technology: solid state drives.

Laptops are now the key target: laptops never have enough power, and battery technology is not keeping pace with our advancements with other technology, and until Santa Rosa more than 3 hour battery life under normal conditions on most laptops was impossible… now it’s simply medium difficulty. Flash technology now has gotten very interesting due to the fact everyone from laptop manufacturers to silent computing aficionados to even the enterprise sector wants flash tech to replace their spinning milkshakes.

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Open Source software architect and technologist. He's just this guy, you know? Follow him him on Google+.
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Transmissions from the Little Blue Marble

Published June 29th, 2007


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