Without Drivers, Hybrid HDDs Delayed

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2007-09-19

Without Drivers, Hybrid HDDs Delayed

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Hybrid hard drives wont get traction in the marketplace unless Microsoft makes up its mind that it wants to support them with optimized drivers.

The discussion came up at a luncheon meeting of HDD (hard disk drive) and SSD (solid state drive) company executives, journalists, analysts, and attendees of the IDEMA (International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association) DiskCon conference Sept. 19 at the Convention Center here.

HDDs, which rely on a combination of traditional drives and flash memory to deliver better power consumption rates, durability, battery life and system response time cheaper than full flash drive systems, are expected to constitute 35 percent of all disk drives shipped with portable PCs by 2010. But that progress apparently is threatened since Microsoft ceased development on supporting drivers earlier this year, analysts and industry executives say.

To read more about the Hybrid Storage Alliance, click here.

Hybrid architecture combines nonvolatile, solid-state flash memory and traditional disk drives.

Microsofts ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive drivers, designed to work in hybrid drives and included in Vista, leverage flash to improve a PCs responsiveness. ReadyDrive uses either native hard drive RAM or the nonvolative flash cache Turbomemory (formerly called Robson), but not both. Turbomemory hardware, due to architectural requirements, requires special drivers supplied by Intel.

Flash memory chips reduce startup times, increase operating speeds, and lower power consumption because they are able to halt the spinning drive. But to work optimally in a Vista system, the hybrid must be supported by specialized drivers that are not now available, critics contend.

"Theres kind of a window for this to happen, too," conference speaker Tom Coughlin, president of the Coughlin & Associates HDD/storage consultancy, told eWEEK. "If they [Microsoft] dont take action soon, then the Robson [Intel] hybrid technology will probably become a de facto standard."

The first hybrid HDD laptops and notebooks were expected in July, but are already delayed noticeably. Seagate Technology and Samsung will be the first to begin shipping these in volume.

Dell and Samsung now are marketing light, thin and fast 32GB solid-state laptops. But theyre expensive; the SSD option costs an additional $995. Hybrid drives will add about $300 to the price tag.

Turbomemory is not yet available, and Microsoft hasnt produced any new drivers yet for the HDD makers, who are chomping at the bit so they can add the software as soon as possible.

Microsofts media relations team had not issued a response from the company Sept. 19 by press time.

"In order to get full use of both the flash [memory] and the spinning disk, you need optimized drivers," David Reinsel, storage analyst at IDC, told eWEEK.

"Theres a lot of indecision at Microsoft about whether to support hybrid hard drives going forward. They kind of backed off developing the drivers; now were seeing the HDD manufacturers having to develop their own drivers, which isnt going to be a real popular thing with system OEMs, because you wont have the vendor-to-vendor consistency with some of the drive rollouts."

John Rydning, Reinsels colleague at IDC, reiterated that for hybrid hard drives to be successful, it is imperative that Microsoft support them with updated drivers.

"Its all dependent on Vista, and so far, Vista has placed a demand that you have to have a hybrid hard drive to have the Vista premium logo, but now theyre not supporting the [driver] development that needs to take place," Rydning said.

"All the hard drive manufacturers have found little issues about how the integration has worked; this all needs to be sorted out, but it hasnt happened. If it doesnt happen—theres kind of this crunch coming up and people are starting to wonder, Is Microsoft still going to keep that Vista Premium requirement for having a hybrid hard drive?"

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Without Drivers, Hybrid HDDs


There has been some shift in resources at Microsoft, Rydning said, to redirect the development of other hybrid drivers in favor of supporting the Robson Turbomemory technology when it comes to the market.

"Its even still unclear as to whether drivers will be in place in Vista to support Robson," Rydning said.

Fujitsu Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Joel Hagberg said at the luncheon that the hybrid hard drive isnt far enough along in development and that hes not sure it has quite enough market value yet to justify the extra cost it would take to acquire it.

"Is booting up in 21 seconds [which is what the hybrid touts] that much of a difference from Vista booting up in 28 seconds?" Hagberg asked. "I dont see anybody paying extra for that. There arent that many near-term benefits at this point. It [hybrid drive] goes to sleep easier and more often [to save power], but that also means it has to boot up more often, and that could impact its reliability.

Did Samsung ship the first hybrid HDD? Click here to read more.

"I think we need to drive them around the field and test them for a while. I dont see them as a real-world technology yet," Hagberg said.

Hybrid hard drive technology is the industrys response to growing demand for notebook PCs that deliver the speed and durability of desktop PCs, Joni Clark, chairperson of the Hybrid Storage Alliance and a marketing manager at Seagate in Scotts Valley, Calif., told eWEEK.

Hybrid drives can be deployed in other mobile devices and computing systems, and they combine the capacity and cost-effectiveness of hard drives with the responsiveness, power-efficiency and durability of flash memory, Clark said.

"Adding nonvolatile memory to the hard drive brings about a host of mobility benefits that increases the value users want in notebook PCs—longer battery life, faster response, greater system durability," Clark said.

Robson offers a speed boost that cannot be matched by raising clock frequencies without running into power dissipation limitations, Intel program manager Knute Grimswald said at 2006 flash conference.

"And while multicore processors are good for applications like graphics rendering, they do not really help with typical user tasks like powering up or accessing programs," Grimswald said. "A laptop with Robson flash technology will power up almost immediately, compared to several seconds for an identical laptop without Robson."

A Robson laptop will open Adobe Reader in less than 0.5 seconds, compared to over 5 seconds for a non-Robson laptop, he added.

Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify Microsofts definition of the ReadyDrive and ReadyBoost technologies and to fix a quote attribution.

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