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Making Sense of the Latest Hard Drive Technology

If you took a sample of the technology press coverage over the past year, you’d probably think processors (CPU/GPU) were the primary focus of computer innovation. The press loves a good fight. Therefore, Intel vs. AMD or NVIDIA vs. AMD makes for eye-catching headlines as well as compelling stories. New chips from major players garner a lot of attention, but they are not the only components that have seen an increase in development and innovation.

Take, for example, hard drive storage. As we create more high-fidelity content, storage and drive performance are often more critical to the workflow than anything else. For example, a company may want to back up every instance running on a virtual machine. This requires storage capacity, but also high-performance drives along with the ability to scale as you grow.

Let’s look at a few storage technologies that are not only pushing the limits of performance and capacity but also opening new markets. The days of “throw a bunch of mechanical drives in a RAID array” are gone. RAID continues to be around but it’s complex and finicky. It’s also expensive to maintain. In some instances, companies are replacing these RAID systems with affordable, zero-configuration storage appliances.

So, where is today’s storage technology headed?

Mechanical Drives

As long as motherboard manufacturers create boards with SATA ports, I suspect we’ll continue to see companies such as Western Digital churn out mechanical drives. Lately we’ve seen drives for under $600 that sport up to 256 MB of cache and store 10 TB of data. When capacity is more important than speed, mechanical drives are tough to beat. They are still popular with those who insist on setting up a server with RAID. Intel recently release a product called Optane that works in conjunction with mechanical drives, but I’ll get to that later.

Mechanical drives give you great “bang for the buck,” but they come with some major downsides. They generate more heat, use more energy, take up more space and—worst of all—are less reliable than solid state drives (SSD). And that doesn’t even touch on performance. Even the consumer-grade SSDs run circles around the best mechanical drives when it comes to sheer read/write performance.

I used to hear that it doesn’t matter how slow the drives are if they are being used for archiving and backup purposes. But even that’s changing as companies look to back up large amounts of data in real time. What you gain in capacity from using mechanical drives you give back in performance. And today, some companies are realizing that’s too large of a compromise to make when better-performing technologies are available and reasonably priced.

Solid State Drives (SSD)

I recently replaced a server’s primary drive with an SSD. The SSD went into a friend’s server that he relies on to run his business, a doctor’s office. So this data is definitely important. I replaced the older mechanical drive with a new Samsung Pro SSD. I then reinstalled Windows on it along with his patient database. The performance of his system went from barely tolerable to his employees asking if we’d replaced the server with a new model.

An SSD remains among the best upgrades you can make to your computer. Nearly all the early reliability kinks have been resolved, and while they are no longer the fastest drives available, they are considerably faster than mechanical drives. The first generation SSDs barely had the capacity to host your operating system let alone all your programs and files. That’s no longer the case with models holding up to 2 TB and beyond. And because SSDs run over standard SATA connections, they increase system performance without having to upgrade the motherboard and RAM.

A few years ago, it was rare to find storage appliances that supported SSDs, but that has changed. Products, such as the OneBlox 5210, have room for up to 10 SSDs. That gives you 38 TB of raw storage capacity in a 1U chassis. You can even add more drives to the OneBlox as needed or add additional OneBlox as your company’s storage needs grow.

M.2 Drives

This is where drive technology begins to get confusing for a lot of people. One cause for confusion is that M.2 drives look more like sticks of memory than hard drives. Simply put, M.2 is the second generation of SSDs. They have a much smaller form factor, and they aren’t limited to SATA III speeds because they run over PCI-Express ports. What does that mean? Well, it means that an M.2 drive can conservatively run five to seven times faster than the best-performing first-generation SSDs.

You don’t hear as much about M.2 drives because they are still relatively new and found mostly on workstation and server motherboards. They also require a dedicated M.2 connector on the motherboard. That connector is only found on the newer boards, which means you can’t simply replace a mechanical drive with an M.2 drive.

Just like SSD drives a few years ago, M.2 drives are still new enough to have a few issues. These drives run very hot and tend to throttle performance when their cases don’t have proper cooling. They are also more expensive than first-generation SSDs, and they can be incredibly finicky with system drivers and the BIOS.

Once the thermal considerations get resolved and prices come down, storage appliances like the OneBlox could be stacked with M.2 drives. They shine in environments that require a lot of read/write actions in a short amount of time. For example, a large database server that handles 10,000+ read/writes a day would be an ideal application for M.2 technology.

My advice to anyone considering an M.2 drive is to wait it out just a bit longer, even though your fingers may be itching to pull the trigger today. Make the jump once the initial kinks have been worked out and you have  determined you have no other bottlenecks. They are similar to an exotic sports car in that they provide thrilling performance but come with a few headaches.

Intel Optane

I’m hesitant to include a technology owned by a single company. But after using a workstation with Optane for the last two months, I’m convinced it’s here to stay. Maybe you’ve never heard of Optane until now. So, what’s it all about?

Intel is marketing Optane as the future of memory and possibly storage. They could be right. But today, Optane is simply a memory technology that acts as an accelerator to mechanical drives. Yes, old mechanical drives!

Optane is a chip that slots into your motherboard and watches how you use your computer. It then takes the files you use most frequently and moves them into the Optane memory. This can include everything from the operating system to games and applications. Some call it RAM that doesn’t disappear when you reboot your system.

Intel has already announced SSDs that support Optane as well as enterprise solutions for the data center that include fast caching and storage for latency-sensitive workloads. Intel is blurring the lines between storage and memory. It’s not hard to imagine a day when servers forgo separate memory and drive controllers and instead have access to one low-latency pool of storage.

But today, Optane is only available in 32 GB and 64 GB modules that require motherboard support along with a 7th generation Intel Core processor. Some might call it a poor man’s SSD because it takes a mechanical drive and makes it perform similarly to an SSD. We’ll have to wait to see if other companies embrace Optane before we crown it King of Storage.

Conclusion

We have a perfect storm brewing. People are creating more content than ever before. That places a large burden on IT to back up all that data. Then cloud services come along and promise to make our lives easier by alleviating our storage challenges.

For companies that don’t create a lot of data, cloud services can provide enough benefits that you should consider offloading at least some of your storage needs to them. Last week, I spoke with the owner of a real estate business who told me he moved all 20 of his employees to cloud storage and G Suite by Google. His lone server ran Windows and had acted as the company file share. Moving that single function to the cloud made a lot of sense.

For the rest of us who require daily system backups or work with large data sets, it’s not realistic to assume cloud services will provide everything we need in terms of storage. For most of us, storage appliances that run on-premises are a better option. Some may interact with the cloud and intelligently move data back and forth. But their performance is largely determined by the storage technology they support. SSDs are now the norm, but I expect products with M.2 drives will be here soon.

Take a look at what’s happening in storage. It’s not as sexy as CPU or GPUs, but it’s driving new products into the market that many of us will use each day.

 

Categories: Uncategorized
Tags: hard drive technologyM.2 drivesSSD
Brett Nordquist: Brett spent nearly a decade in various roles at Microsoft and currently runs his own consulting company called Red Mountain Research. Brett attended the University of Utah where he earned a degree in German. When not at his computer, he enjoys spending time with family, cycling, and playing basketball.