Hybrid hard drives set to heat up the market--for Vista

Scott Lowe explains the potential of hybrid hard drives to reduce storage power consumption for Microsoft Vista and beyond.

The next time someone asks if you have a hybrid, consider your answer carefully. He may not be asking about your wheels, but instead about something else that spins—your data storage. Coming soon to the storage stage is a technology called a "hybrid drive," which melds a traditional hard drive with a massive flash-based buffer.

Now, rather than relying on a traditional hard drive that works through the use of nothing but moving parts, your system could make use of a similar device that can last longer, generate less heat, and use less power due to its ability to shut down moving parts, even when in use.

Here are some of the benefits that can be realized through the use of hybrid hard drives:

  • Reduced power consumption: Microsoft estimates that the use of a hybrid hard drive can reduce storage power consumption by as much as 80 percent. The reason: The hard drive can stay powered down for much of the time that the computer is in use, while data is written to and retrieved from the non-volatile flash storage. Now, this is not to say that your laptop battery power consumption will be reduced by this much. After all, storage power consumption is just one variable that goes into mobile system power consumption. Current estimates indicate that as much as 30 minutes can be added to battery life through the use of a hybrid hard drive.
  • Increased Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF): Fewer moving parts (or, the same number of moving parts that are used less often) equals longer life and increased reliability. This is especially true for mobile systems, which are more likely to suffer from data loss as a result of shock to the spinning hard drive platters.
  • Faster boot time: Reading from the non-volatile flash memory on the hard drive is much faster than waiting for the platters to spin up and then looking for the appropriate data. As a result, a hybrid-equipped system can boot much more quickly than the traditional PC.

You can see that there are significant benefits to be had with the use of a hybrid hard drive. Now, on to whether this technology is viable and can be used in the real world.

Vista ReadyDrive

I'll talk about one particular application for which hybrid hard drives can be a boon: Windows Vista. Vista has a feature Microsoft called "ReadyDrive" that is designed around hybrid drive technology. Microsoft intends this technology to be used initially with mobile systems that run Windows Vista as a way to achieve the benefits that I discussed earlier. Eventually, this benefit will be available for all users of Vista, mobile or tethered.

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Windows Vista supports drive cache sizes from a minimum of 50 MB in size up to 2 GB and more, with 128 MB to 256 MB recommended as a minimum. The contents of this cache can survive a power loss, making the loss of data less likely.


This data safety opens up one concern about the technology—that it is trading security for performance. Further, non-volatile flash memory, similar to what is found in a typical thumb drive, has a lifespan after which it becomes useless. Flash-based systems can only be written to so many times before they simply wear out. In order to combat this, manufacturers must employ complex data writing schemes that don't use the same section of the flash memory over and over and, instead, must spread the work across the whole device.


Unless the caveats prove to be too hard to overcome, ReadyDrive and hybrid hard drives have the potential to positively impact a user's Vista experience.

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