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.
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.
Flash Memory Can Grow
Meanwhile, the hybrid drive technology may be better on the integration front, but its adding a fundamentally unreliable technology (NAND flash) to one refined for reliability (hard disk drives). IT managers will want to track which notebooks have hybrid and which do not.
Flash memory can wear out after a certain number of writes. The number of operations for a piece of media may appear large (many thousands of writes), but cells will become exhausted and unreliable. This is a byproduct of the technology.
To avoid this effect, manufacturers employ a variety of wear-leveling algorithms to make sure data is written to all parts of the memory as well as include a large batch, or pool, of spare cells that are parceled out when a cell goes bad.
Hard drives do a similar thing, of course—checking for bad blocks and marking them in the bad block table (go figure). But the platters of a hard disk last many orders of magnitude longer than any NAND memory, even with wear leveling on the job.
NAND is fine and understandable in computing applications where ruggedness is prized, as with military applications or a consumer product such as the Apple iPod nano. But is it the best choice for business or everyday computing?
How far can we trust flash with our data? Ive had many more flash cards die on me than hard drives over the past few years.
After all, hard disk storage is supposed to be reliable and fast (and high capacity). For the past several decades, manufacturers have delivered on that promise, particularly improving the robustness and performance of small drives for mobile computing.
Now, were adding NAND to the mix. Thats my major beef. For what?
Should we introduce unreliable technology into our computing platform so that users can watch a DVD or two on a long flight? Or work on that spreadsheet at the last minute in a coffee shop?
Instead, carry a spare battery. Because our battery technology is lagging must we dumb down storage to compensate?
Microsoft could have improved the poor way Windows sleeps and wakes up long ago. But they didnt. Windows Vista will fix that. Must we dumb down our storage because Windows is slow at times and users grow impatient?
Of all the plans for adding flash to PCs, I prefer the Intels Robson architecture. It keeps the memory cache on the logic board, where memory has traditionally gone and ties that cache to the computer itself and not to a drive that can be removed from the system.
In March, the company said it would ship the technology in the first half of 2007 with a notebook platform called Santa Rosa.
Even better, with the flash technology focused on the notebook itself and not on the hard drive or USB port, we will find it much easier to just say “no” to the whole idea.
Does this incursion of flash memory into your standard computing system give you qualms? Or are you more than ready for ReadyBoost? Let me know.