Flash, Storage Vendors Eye Windows Vista

Reporter's Notebook: Performance was the key topic at the recent Flash Memory Summit, as memory makers heard details of speedups for Windows Vista. To little surprise given the audience, the hard drive is the villain and flash is the hero.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Flash memory looks to give Windows Vista performance a helping hand next year. In presentations by Intel and Microsoft at the Flash Memory Summit conference here, the details of how that flash-enabled speed boost will be accomplished grew a bit more clear.

Some of the flash memory architectures may find their way into slots on logic boards of Intel-based Macintosh and Linux systems in 2007 as well as on forthcoming "hybrid" hard drives that incorporate large flash caches alongside their rotating platters.

Sharing the keynote address on Aug. 8 were Matt Ayers, Microsofts program manager of Windows Client performance, and Intel Scientist Knut Grimsrud, director of storage architecture for the Intel Storage Technologies Group. Each discussed the technological reason for the use of flash in forthcoming notebook and desktop systems as well as further details on the requirements of the flash architectures.

Ayers ran down the features of Windows Vistas ReadyBoost, which can take advantage of a connected flash cache to speed up overall system and application performance, and ReadyDrive, which uses a flash cache on the systems hard drive to improve boot times and power usage.

According to Ayers, Microsofts flash-based features due in Vista "provide a more consistent computing experience—they actually make Vista run better."

/zimages/1/28571.gifWhy should we have to wait for Vista to get a flash speedup? Click here to read what eWEEK readers have to say about SuperFetch technology.

The technologies are expressions of Microsofts SuperFetch intelligent memory management technology that will arrive in Vista. The software monitors what programs the user runs and when, and then makes sure that the necessary program resources are in memory at the required time, Ayers said.

"Theres no reason that an operating system cant get smarter and more efficient over time. It knows what you do and when you do them. It learns, basically," he said.

Ayers noted that the multiple seeks needed to fetch a resource from the hard disk can take as long as 60 milliseconds and these events quickly add up to long delays for the user. However, when these same resources are in a flash cache, the time can be less than a millisecond.

The SuperFetch technology will prioritize the cache and will even cut short tasks that run when the machine is idle, such as background maintenance tasks or security scans, in order to improve availability of programs and frequently used data.

The ReadyBoost flash cache will be both encrypted and compressed, he said. In addition, theres no unique data on the caches; everything that is in the cache is backed up on the systems hard drive. If the cache is removed or the system hibernates, the cache is rebuilt.

Ayers said Microsoft had expanded the list of flash media types supported by ReadyBoost, from USB 2.0 thumb drives to a range of other card types and interfaces, including Mobile PCI, Compact Flash and Sony Memory Stick.

To gain the ReadyBoost logo, the flash product will need to have a capacity of 512MB or greater; provide a throughput of 5MB per second for random 4K reads; and 3MB per second for 512K random writes. He said the flash will need to be from SLC (single-level cell) technology that offers more performance than the multilevel cell flash on the market.

However, users will be able to plug in a noncertified flash device with 233MB free and ReadyBoost will attempt to use it, Ayers said to eWEEK.com later during a demonstration of the technologies. In addition, ReadyBoost will test the device with a number of read and write cycles before each use.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about the Flash Memory Summit.

For the flash cache embedded on the drive, ReadyDrive can operate as a write cache as well as read cache. Since its out of sight and difficult to remove, the cache is trusted by the system and its data is stored across state transitions such as boots suspend-and-resume cycles and hibernation.

"Since were buffering write data and read data, we can be a lot more aggressive about when we spin the drive down," Ayers said. This will make power performance more efficient and thus improve battery life, he said.

The minimum flash cache supported on drives will be 50MB, Ayers said, and Microsoft was pushing drive vendors for capacities of 128MB or greater. In addition, system vendors will be able to use a portion of the cache for tools, help files or other resources.

Next Page: Intels Robson technology and concerns about flash endurance.