The Hard Drive on the Cutting-Room Floor

Digital video may be the next desktop publishing. But Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern wonders if your hard drive performance up to the needs of the application.

Attendees at DV Expo East, opening today in New York, will discover the latest efforts of camcorder manufacturers and software vendors to expand the market for digital video. Certainly, some industry watchers may claim that a new era got underway this week as Adobe Systems Inc. redirected its video strategy to focus on Windows professional and prosumer customers. At the same time, will video pros and consumer videographers be able to count on the required level of performance from their hard drives?

Whats the beef here, you might ask? Isnt my drive good enough for video?

The answer is maybe.

Taking a birds-eye view of the storage industry, we can see that hard disk technology development is now focused on four areas: small, inexpensive drives for consumer digital video recorders and set-top boxes; small, efficient drives for notebooks; high-capacity drives for desktop storage; and very high-performance mechanisms for servers and workstations. Sounds good. However, the storage requirements for professional video content creation applications may find a somewhat difficult fit with the latter two categories.

Manufacturers of 3.5-inch desktop drives look for a balance between capacity and performance at a certain price, with the nod given to capacity. The rotation speed of these drives range from 5,400 to 7,200 rpm.

Now, not so long ago, a mechanism with a 7,200 rpm spindle speed was considered a high-performance drive. Yet, nowadays, that speed is becoming the standard for many drives, its even made its way to notebooks.

"Its hard to fathom that this was the best there was just a few years ago," one storage product manager said to me recently, pointing at an entry-level 120GB drive. In terms of capacity, rotation rate and seek times, this drive carried a premium price. Today, its nothing special.

Todays high-performance drives offer spindle speeds between 10,000 and 15,000 rpm. In addition, these mechanisms receive more attention from drive engineers. For example, the firmware of high-end drives often take advantage of "secret sauce" routines that can improve performance such as robust command queuing, which lets the drive itself reorder commands to optimize delivery and improve latency. Some of this code can be found in desktop drives, but not as much as in the high-priced models.

At the same time, the high-end mechanisms offer half or less of the capacity found in your usual desktop drive. This may in some part be due to the sale of these mechanisms into RAID configurations, since a smaller capacity per drive can reduce the time needed to reconstruct the data on a singled failed drive.

The missing link for professional content creation storage would be a hard disk drive that combines the attributes of high capacity with higher rotation speeds. No doubt, the bar for high-end desktop drives will move towards 10,000 rpm by early next year, and that will be an improvement. However, I believe video professionals could use an even faster drive, offering capacities more in the 200GB range and incorporating the latency optimization and other reliability algorithms found in the higher-priced spread.

For the current state of consumer digital video editing, my proposed drive might be overkill, since the technology assumes a compressed data format. Still, professional users often want to deal with uncompressed video and multiple uncompressed streams at that. Such productions want both expanded capacities, fast throughput and fast seek performance.

In addition, the video market is on the move towards high-resolution formats, even in the prosumer space. Attendees at Digital Video Expo East can expect demonstrations of some of these new devices this week.

Last Friday, a consortium of DV manufacturers announced the agreement over a new specification for high-definition digital video. The final spec is due for release in September the group said.

Dubbed HDV, the forthcoming specification supports vertical progressive and interlaced scanning rates of 720 and 1,080 lines, respectively. The 720p rate will provide a 1,280-by-720-pixel resolution, while the 1,080i spec has a maximum resolution of 1,440 by 1,080 pixels. Audio compression will use the MPEG-1 Audio Layer II sampling standard at 48KHz. This will mean larger files and the movement of a lot more data than the current applications based around the 480 progressive-scan NTSC standard.

So why wont we see these video drives at the show this week? No doubt, the current lack of a mass market has given drive manufacturers great pause. Even more of a hindrance might be the extra price tag that such drives would carry. Thats perhaps a terminal worry in an industry with slim margins and cutthroat competition. Would you buy a special drive for digital video? Or do the current crop of 7,200 rpm and 10,000 rpm drives provide sufficient performance (and the price is right)? Let me know what you think!

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.