Storage

Hybrid hard drives: Single unit storage tiering or an interim fad technology?

Storage can frequently be the bottleneck in any computing environment, especially PCs and laptops. IT pro Rick Vanover poses the question of whether hybrid hard drives are the solution for storage now, or simply a solution that will be obsolete too soon.

When it comes to my own computing experiences, I find myself always wanting more than I have. Whether it be more memory, a larger screen (or more screens as two isn’t enough anymore), better connectivity, or my storage. Now, storage isn’t a problem in terms of gigabytes and terabytes; I’ve got plenty. Fast storage is where I’d like to see some improvements, and I can’t afford all solid state drive technologies.

Enter the hybrid hard drive. The hybrid hard drive is part solid state media and part rotational storage. The solid state component is usually a small piece of NAND flash memory and the rotational components are typical SATA storage. I’ve spot-checked a few devices, and have seen that today’s offering of hybrid hard drives can offer 500 GB of storage, with 4 GB of that as SSD storage. I’ve found smaller offerings, at 320 or 250 GB in today’s offerings, but in both cases the 4 GB of SSD storage is the same. The Seagate Momentus XT line of drives is the most popular series of hybrid hard drives today (be sure to check Paul Mah’s 2008 post about these drives in their early stages).

The basic premise of these drives is that it self-manages access between the two media types for best performance. While I am considering a unit, I’ve not used them. Further, it is safe to say that the SSD tier within the drive is optimized for blocks on disk that are frequently read. Read operations are important, but sequential and random writes are part of the game also.

My big issue with the concept of hybrid hard drives is that they may remove any configuration from geeks like me. You know who you are, the ones who like the knobs and dials. My concern with hybrid hard drives is that they don’t offer too many options, and frankl,y 4 GB of solid state storage would go by quickly.

What is your take on hybrid hard drives today? Are they a good mix between the normal “cheap and deep” storage and the highest performing tiers? Or are they a simply a stopgap? Share your comments below.

About

Rick Vanover is a software strategy specialist for Veeam Software, based in Columbus, Ohio. Rick has years of IT experience and focuses on virtualization, Windows-based server administration, and system hardware.

26 comments
paul.scott
paul.scott

I wrote a blog recently on http://blog.macguy.info/ talking about SSD, vs Hybrid drives. I couldn't really tell much difference between hybrid and standard hard drives in my testing. SSD was a huge jump and to moderate the cost and keep massive storage I went with removing the SuperDrive from my Macbook Pro and put a 500GB mechanical and a 250 GB SSD. Music and Movies live on the mechanical and everything else on SSD. It works great and is a more reasonably priced option.

bni1369
bni1369

I suppose it's an interesting 'thought experiment' but, what's the point? To my ear, it sounds a bit like the 'hybrid fighter plane' that had a reciprocating engine driving AND powering a jet turbine. Remember the 'Motorjet' in 1908? A piston compression ignition in a reciprocating engine was directly used to form a thrust reaction jet. Watch out Boeing!

snegron1
snegron1

isnt storage about speed (gb/s), cost ($/gb), and security? and you want dials and knobs?

alexisgarcia72
alexisgarcia72

Is better if you get an SSD drive for your OS and applications and a huge regular ATA or USB3 7200rpm drive for your files (data, docs, emails, photos, videos, music, etc). I put SSD in 2 laptops and desktop computer. All my computers (even the old ones) are working in "fast & furious mode". highly recommended. Forget hybrid (for pcs, you can get hybrid car anyway)

Dknopp
Dknopp

It is just getting to the point that anything mechanical will go away, it is just too much of a bottleneck. All of the configuration for large Databases now as far as virtual memory and paging is concerned it to get rid of all of the VM paging or as much as is feasable, actual whole process swapping has been a no-no for a while now. Next to go will be all the IO to mechanical storage.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

I can't see these being around very long in their current form. 4 GB is no where near large enough to be useful. If you have the space, getting a separate SSD makes more sense. Load the OS and other frequently used programs on the SSD and then keep your music and movies on the regular drive and you get the best of both worlds.

paul.willy
paul.willy

For all you naysayers, you should explore the protocols in ATA-8, if you are running NT6 or NT6.1, that would be Vista or Windows 7. Ready Drive allows the system to do a number of interesting things with the flash cache. Flash memory has no rotational latency; however it damages itself on every write. That means your storage on magnetic media is more durable, but it reads slower. The benefit of hybrid is your data is all on magnetic so it is more durable, but some gets duplicated on flash so it is faster. Here are the features when running Vista/7. NT6 saves boot data to flash so reboots are faster. If you hibernate, portions are saved in flash so resume is faster. Windows can write to flash without spinning up the drive so your battery lasts longer. Finally caching takes place for recent data so the system appears to speed up. All these benefits are also available if you insert a type 10 SD card in your SD slot. And with the price of SDHC, you could go for 16GB. Mark Russinovich wrote an interesting article here, http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/2007.03.vistakernel.aspx Paul

tommy
tommy

I can't see this as being much more then a short lived product myself. The price of SSD's is collapsing as the various manufacturers ramp up operations, and ever higher volumes of NAND chips being manufactured makes the technology cheaper. Perhaps in a laptop a hybrid drive might find a genuine use, but I think it's a poor substitute for genuine performance. The Seagate Momentus XT 500GB sells for around 80-90GBP in the UK. For the same price, or even cheaper, you could buy two Samsung 1TB Spinpoint F3, which are themselves very fast HDD's, and RAID them to get consistently fast read/write times. For more money, less capacity, and slower performance, In a desktop environment I can't see any benefits of having a hybrid drive.

gbyshenk
gbyshenk

I haven't used "hybrid" drives at all, but I can't see how they would be particularly useful, except perhaps in very special cases. There are some interesting possibilities using SSDs as cache in large arrays for "bursty" access modes, but I can't see how it would help much for a single-user machine. In such a case, one would be better off just using an SSD for better performance; if you really need the hundreds of gigs that won't let you use an SSD, then you will quickly exhaust the solid state storage on the hybrid drive and be back to the traditional HD and its speed.

DesD
DesD

"if faster disks will solve your problem, you don't have a disk problem; you have a memory problem!" (IBM DOS SE, early '70s) Caching didn't exist then, and he was referring mainly to paging, which wasn't as smart as it got later. But the rule still holds: 1ST look at your main memory, then add a caching disk if you need more specifically for disk performance. Roland's comment above illustrates this perfectly.

roland.tucker
roland.tucker

I have been using a 320GB Momentus XT in my work notebook (C2 1.66MHz, 3GB RAM) since Dec 2010 and there is a noticeable speed improvement booting Windows 7 and loading apps I use regularly like VS2010, Outlook and Excel, but I have noticed annoying lags when looking up large file lists in Explorer and opening a file for the first time. There are no speed improvements copying files. When I compare this to my personal notebook (i7, 8GB RAM) which has a 200GB OWC SSD, its chalk and cheese. I use the SSD for OS and programs and files I edit regularly and I also have a 500GB 5400RPM in the modular bay as extra storage for multimedia and VM's. I now have the control and the speed.

paulo
paulo

I think the hybrid disk employs the same old methods of cache memory. You a large and slow memory (the RAM) and a fast and small memory (L1 cache). The end result is that you have the statistical effect of a large and fast memory. So hybrid disks will be a good options. But I am not sure if we need a disk anymore. Why not just plug the non-volatile flash memory directly on the computer bus (PCI)?

Slayer_
Slayer_

Does it just register as two hard drives? Or is it sticking recently used files in the flash drive so they can be accessed faster a second time? (could be good for games, but 4GB is not enough in this case)

Ninja1507
Ninja1507

In my opinion 4GB of SSD Isn't worth the price tag. I just bought 2 new 2TB drives (Not here yet) and I paid less than $100 on each. Bottom line, Manage it yourself. Buy a cheap SSD (like 40-80GB) and only put things you Read often on it. Obviously the write issue comes up, but eventually SSDs will go down in price.

jeslurkin
jeslurkin

Mech + SSD (proportion undetermined) seems to be favored over hybrid. Great! Thanks to all: The more I read (and cogitate) on the matter, the more I agree. Tnx again.

Dknopp
Dknopp

Of course if I had a companies or business units livelyhood sitting on a non-mirrored and backedup storage I will be the one that gets fired when it dies. The fact is, mechanical drives are reaching their limits in large databases, I have come across many databases that are being bottlenecked by the IO to SAN - more cpu waits (IO) than cpu usage. There are several things than can be done to alleviate that bottleneck, depending on the workload of course and the SQL code, but after you do all of that you are still being bottlenecked by the spinning of the disk, and its getting harder and harder to get around that. Back in the day setting binary switches and using paper tape and cards was replaced by tape drives and tape was replaced by hard disk for production usage ( not backups necessarily )and it is inevitable that disk will be replaced by solid state. These hybrid drives just look like an interim marketing gimmick to me. It is interesting what will be the backup medium though. To be honest I am not comfy will all of my pictures being on my hard drive and my backup hard drive, whether mechanical or SSD, sure it is fine for me right now but what about my family 100 years from now? I can look at photos from my great grandparents from when they were married in 1901 in San Antonio TX, but will my great grankids be able to see my photos stored on a hard drive?

Jaytmoon
Jaytmoon

But then mechancal HDD's are also subject to failure. Sometimes catastrophic failure wth little or no warning. So really SSD's are still in thier collective infancy as storage tech goes. They do have merit in their w/r speeds but are limited in that finite capacity as well. While mechanical drives are not as fast, they can out last their ssd counterparts. I have an MFM drive that still works that is very old (about 1988). I use mostly as a paper weight. On a side note: My Origin laptop uses a Momentus XT hybrid 500 GB hdd drive but I use a usb-3 sata 2 back up drive for the bulk of my data (just in case).

b4real
b4real

How big, and relatively affordable, SSDs are now. Making me lean a bit to the just go SSD route on this topic.

rexrzer1238477
rexrzer1238477

You have to understand how the Hybrid HD works its so-called magic: it doesn't cache the *whole file or program* in the 4GB DRAM, as it would quickly fill up doing that number. Nope, it stores just the command-line and launch sequences for those files, programs, finds a "path to the file or program" that is quick to launch relative to a standard HD searching all over the discs inside of it to launch any program or file. That's how it works, and I repeat there is only a single HD system, no double disc features at all, one volume to format. The DRAM only exists to launch the files and programs that you use often, that's all it does. Hope this helps...

b4real
b4real

The two tiers, we don't get much in the way of configuration options between the drives.

rexrzer1238477
rexrzer1238477

I have two (2) of the Seagate XT 500GB Hybrid HD's that came OEM in my Asus G73SW-3DE 3D-capable notebook, along with 12GB RAM (8GB std.), BluRay Rewriter/DVD Rewriter, Core i7 2630QM, "N"-capable WiFi card (Atheros 9285), and the best part of all a 120Hz LED LCD Display 17.3" in size by LG no less, in short an amazing package of items in a notebook. Now the 1st thing I did was gut the notebook of one of the 500GB XT HD's and install a Vertex 3 120GB SSD for the OS, and any mission critical programs. I did a clean install so no more bloatware/adware/crapolaware either. Now that smart move got me 500MB/sec+ writes and reads (SATA 6 in the house), and I used the xtra storage for all my games and media (iTunes) for use away from home, as at home I use my shared network Media Server with a 4TB AppleTV Library inside. That was an instant Hit Out of the Park, as I found the XT Hybrid HD a drag for program starting, OS launching, caching frequently used files and programs in the 4GB of DRAM onboard, because I was used to an SSD before in my previous notebook and I couldn't be stopped from installing one in the new ride. Now I've got stunning performance all around, boots in about 22 seconds, restarts in about 17-20 seconds, program launches are instantaneous, seeks and reads/writes are rocket-like, there's no waiting for anything. With the price of SSD's coming down, down, down lately it wasn't a bitter pill to swallow either ($170 after rebate at Newegg.com), so I lost some storage on the OS HD, but then again I gained 250% in speed of the OS HD (SSD), so it's more than favorable for the SSD in the house rather than 2 x Momentous XT Hybrid 500GB HD's. I've still got plenty of room in the storage HD and the SSD can read *that volume* almost as quickly as it does its own volume for game launches and a couple movies that I have stored there also (c. 25GB worth of movies that I specially made for the smaller medium with Handbrake and AnyDVD). There's just no excuse not to have a nice, fast, uber-launching SSD these days with the minimalist prices compared to last year even, you simply win all around, especially if you have a 2nd HD in the notebook for storage of all things large, media, movies, games, whatever. As for these Hybrid HD's, they won't last too long in the marketplace, as Seagate has been known to dump something quickly if it doesn't sell out to the ground floor, and these HD's are underwhelming when used...they only have the illusion of being fast, to be danged the product reviews that tout them mostly for kickbacks from Seagate most likely. I see an SSD in anyone's future with a fast notebook interface (SATA 6) to install the SSD onto, it just makes sense vs the Hybrid HD's from Seagate.

b4real
b4real

I may consider it... 2 TB is flippin huge... 500 GB is realistically fine for what I need.

b4real
b4real

For that matter....

Dzmitry Z
Dzmitry Z

Looks like $230 after rebate now... Bummer. 170 for a Vertex 3 is a GREAT deal.

rexrzer1238477
rexrzer1238477

I'm sorry for posting that price because newegg.com only had that special going for 3 days last month, probably not to be repeated until prices indeed fall to less than $200...and that will be soon enough, just watch the market prices of SSD's going South of that mark all around as DRAM supplies have finally caught up to the manufacturing demand. We can only reap good things from this fact of life, because it's been too long the other way--DRAM manufacturers were not prepared for the onslaught of iPhone, iPad, and other makers' smart phones and tablets hitting such a stride as they have in the past 18 months, so supply was often short for the Big 3 Manufacturers (Intel, OCZ, and Micron) who make 75% of all SSD's. From the reading I've done that will most likely never happen again because the DRAM manufacturers learned their lessons well and have blown up the making of base MLC and SLC DRAM to parity with demand, and it will soon go into overdrive as they supply more and more companies with long-standing orders.

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