Is Vista Heading for a Flash Nightmare?

Opinion: Microsoft is touting the extra battery power available by running flash memory thumb drives and hybrid hard disks with Windows Vista. But ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive may trade battery life for your data's integrity.

Now is the time for IT managers to get ready for trouble. The source will be found in Windows Vistas "Ready" twins: ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive, flash-memory-based technologies that aim to improve notebook performance and boot-up times.

Microsoft in April put a branding on these technologies that it had paraded in front of attendees at the past few WinHEC conferences. The pair will arrive in Windows Vista and storage vendors are showing their support with prototype drives and even product announcements.

ReadyBoost will let Vista users plug in a compatible USB thumb drive that will be used by the system as a special RAM cache. Instead of accessing frequently used files and resources from the hard drive, it will be accessible from the cache, which should improve fetch performance for some data types.

But more importantly, ReadyBoost will cut down on drive usage, which will improve the power performance when running on battery power.

According to Microsofts pitch for the technology:

"Windows ReadyBoost technology is reliable and provides protection of the data stored on your device. You can remove the memory device at any time without any loss of data or negative impact to the system; however, if you remove the device, your performance returns to the level you experienced without the device."

The data on the external flash drive will be automatically encrypted using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) 128, just in case you misplace the dongle, according to ReadyBoost Product Manager Matt Ayers in a post on Ian Moulsters Weblog Translating Microsoft technology into plain English.

Windows ReadyDrive is much the same thing, except the flash cache in this case is found on "hybrid" hard drives, now being called HHDD (hybrid hard disk drive). The hybrid drives are just now finding their way to product sheets:

Seagate Technology on June 7 announced its Momentus 5400 PSD, a line of 2.5-inch hybrid hard drives for notebooks. It said power savings of up to 50 percent can be had and a wake-up time improvement of 20 percent.

Samsung, the worlds largest manufacturer of flash, showed a ReadyDrive prototype at this springs WinHEC.

So, whats so bad about extending battery life and gaining some extra performance, especially on a notebook where the CPU can throttle down a bit when youre running off of the grid?

Let me count the ways, both conceptual and practical.

First, about the ReadyBoost thumb drive caching. Lets face it, while the USB port is fine for desktop uses where theres little movement, its a bit unreliable for mobile applications.

/zimages/5/28571.gifMicrosoft pushes for Vista, on time and ready. Click here to read more.

We all know that some plugs fit firmly, while others are mushy. Worse, USB devices stick out from the plane of the enclosure, making them easy to jiggle or dislodge.

Surely a better interface choice for this memory expansion would have been some PC Card format, but that connection is only found on high-end notebooks. The greatest need for speed-ups will be on the commodity, midrange and low-end machines.

If we can be even a bit optimistic about the data integrity of ReadyBoost, I wonder if its touted productivity boost will hold up if all minutes are counted.

Microsoft says that the thumb drive can be removed "without any loss of data or negative impact to the system." But that doesnt mean that your notebook wont be locked up for a while figuring out that theres no longer a device attached.

Certainly, most users will find that the time spent waiting for applications to resurface following a flash drive disturbance should be considered a "negative impact" to their productivity.

Next Page: Flash memory can grow weary.