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Hard disk drive technology trends

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Lincoln, Neb.-based trade magazine publisher Sandhills Publishing Co. standardized on 2.5-inch HDDs a year ago. "We do a lot with SQL Server and for that we want a lot of fast-spinning spindles," said Kim Mehring, IT manager. The 2.5-inch form factor enables Sandhills to pack more disks in each array, which means more spindles. By aggregating more spindles, Mehring can boost I/O performance. He considered SSD for its performance, but the cost was still too high for his budget.

Along with the form-factor transition, the industry is witnessing an interface transition from FC for tier 1 enterprise storage to SAS, and to SATA for tier 2 and archival storage. "With 2.5-inch drives we're seeing a shift to SAS for performance and SATA for high capacity," StorageIO Group's Schulz noted.

But FC drives are far from dead. EMC Corp., for example, recently increased its standard 15K FC drive from 300 GB to 600 GB, according to Scott Delandy, senior product manager for infrastructure products at EMC. Where high-performance storage is required, however, EMC now recommends a combination of SSD and SAS or SATA. "You can replace 146 GB 15K drives with flash and get 30 times greater IOPS for the money," he said. That kind of disk strategy requires automated storage tiering.

If the flash tests work out well at Thomas Weisel Partners, Fiore can imagine shifting away from FC over time to a combination of flash and SATA. "With FC, the largest capacity we can get is 400 GB.

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We're at the mercy of the array vendor," he said. Given his concerns about storage footprint, Fiore has been steadily buying more SATA than FC disk.

Encryption and going green

Chores previously handled by servers or appliances, such as encryption and data deduplication, can now be performed directly on hard disk drives. Specifically, vendors are introducing HDDs with built-in encryption. "Encryption really belongs at the drive level," said Seagate's Worth. The company already offers a self-encrypting drive and expects it to become the standard choice as part of the normal enterprise HDD upgrade process.

Storage managers, however, may not be in any hurry to buy built-in HDD encryption. "We don't worry about encryption, and we do our de-duplication on our Compellent SAN," WhereToLive.com's Higginbotham said. IDEMA's Geenen sees encryption as a way for HDD vendors to add something they might charge more for.

"We encrypt laptops that leave our premises or specific data," Thomas Weisel's Fiore said. "We see no need to encrypt entire drives on the SAN."

Green storage takes several forms with HDD. First, larger capacities mean companies can get the same amount of storage while spinning fewer drives, which saves energy. Second, "vendors are building intelligent power management into the drives that allows them to drop the rpm speed or turn off writes," StorageIO Group's Schulz said.

Storage managers are interested in green disk drive technologies, but they're not exactly jumping at the products. "We don't spin down disks, but anything that saves power, like using large, slower drives, we do," WhereToLive.com's Higginbotham said.

Hard disk drive technology is undergoing significant shifts in form factor, capacity, interfaces and capabilities. It's not, however, going away -- certainly not in the next decade or maybe ever. Solid-state storage will get cheaper and work its way in increasingly greater volume into the enterprise storage strategy, but more likely as a complement rather than a replacement for hard drives.

BIO Alan Radding is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Storage magazine and SearchStorage.com.

This was first published in May 2010

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