Hybrid hard drives: Can Samsung and Microsoft invent a new market for 2007?

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Hybrid hard drives: Can Samsung and Microsoft invent a new market for 2007?

Seattle (WA) – For the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference this May, Microsoft and Samsung Semiconductor are preparing the first demonstration of a self-contained, production-ready prototype for Samsung’s hybrid hard drives, models of which will go into production before the end of the year, a Samsung official told TG Daily. These hybrid hard drives will represent the next stage of Samsung’s ongoing project with Microsoft to expedite I/O throughput time by leveraging large OneNAND Flash memory caches to radically improve application performance, as well as reduce system power-up and power-down times to under one second.

To help catalyze rapid adoption of hybrid HDD technology by OEMs, TG Daily has learned, Microsoft explored as early as November 2005 the possibility of making hybrid HDD inclusion a requirement for builders of desktop and mobile systems for both consumer and business customers to qualify for the company’s Premium logo for Windows Vista compliance, as soon as the second quarter of 2007. The Premium logo is granted by Microsoft to builders who have assured the company that they are providing users with, according to Microsoft, the “richest” computing experience currently available.

Officials from both Microsoft and Samsung declined comment on future Premium and Basic logo requirements. However, when Microsoft unveiled its partnership with Samsung on hybrid HDD technology in April of last year, its presentation indicated that Microsoft was moving toward considering “preferred storage platform” status for systems that included hybrid drives.

If Microsoft decides to continue or resume pursuing hybrid HDDs for is Premium logo requirements, it could represent one of the most concerted efforts by the company to significantly alter the fundamental architecture of PCs since its backing of Plug-and-Play. But it could also symbolize an unusual U-turn in the evolution of Microsoft’s support strategy, by not just openly endorsing but mandating the inclusion in PCs of a component manufactured mainly, if not only, by one company.

A hybrid HDD utilizes a non-volatile cache of NAND Flash memory to store frequently accessed sectors of data, in order to leverage Flash’s quick read times to make those sectors more readily accessible. In early demonstrations, Microsoft demonstrated 128 MB of Samsung’s OneNAND cache, and recommended “as much as” that amount; indications are today that Samsung’s working prototypes, to be revealed this April, could include much more, perhaps as high as 1 GB. Microsoft has explained the purpose and usefulness of this cache in a number of ways, but TG Daily has learned that those explanations – including some which parallel the functionality of L1 and L2 caches for a CPU – are not altogether relevant to current Samsung prototypes.

Don Barnetson, associate director of Flash marketing for Samsung Semiconductor, gave TG Daily a more current explanation: Samsung’s hybrid drives utilize a broad storage map which incorporate both the Flash cache and the traditional platter space. But the Flash space is treated with greater preference, since its read times are faster. So frequently used sectors (note: not files) are mapped to the Flash space to increase performance. Furthermore, drivers in the operating system have certain authority to designate which sectors are given such preferential treatment.

“What you do is take a logical address of a hard disk drive – say, sector 0,” Barnetson illustrated for us, “and rather than having it reside on magnetic media, you say it now resides on Flash media. Any operations that are done to it, whether they be read or write, are not so much cached as they are pinned, or physically moved from the magnetic media over to the Flash memory.” A sector which contains frequently accessed files or other elements, such as a FAT table, could be pinned to Flash memory for faster read and write performance, he said.

Once a logical address is pinned to Flash, I/O requests to that address are automatically redirected to the cache. This is somewhat different from the dynamics of a memory cache, where elements of memory in the vicinity of the address currently being accessed are copied into the cache, since those other addresses in the neighborhood are the ones most likely to be addressed next. Once a memory address falls off the “page” in the memory cache, it’s refreshed with the addresses in the same page of the next address. This is not at all how a hybrid HDD cache works, Barnetson was clear in illustrating. “Once you pin a sector, you just read and write to it as you normally would; it’s just that the drives will respond more quickly,” he stated.

Despite recent makeovers that give the company the veneer of a conventional consumer electronics manufacturer, Samsung is, first and foremost, a semiconductor company. So it is clearer now than ever that its entry into the hard drive market space in 2003 was a precursor to carving out a potentially huge market space for the expansion of one of its key existing businesses, NAND Flash memory. According to estimates from analyst firm iSuppli, Samsung remains the principal supplier of the world’s Flash memory, with an estimated 50.4% market share in terms of revenue among the top seven suppliers, in Q4 2005. Only Toshiba, the #2 player by iSuppli’s estimate with 19%, has the virtue of also being a hard drive manufacturer.

On its own, Samsung’s value proposition for hybrid hard drives goes like this: By pinning to Flash sectors of data that are reserved for use in powering down or suspending the system, the time consumed in such everyday acts could be whittled down to a mere second or less. “Particularly on the power-down side,” remarked Barnetson, “if the Flash cache is sufficiently large, you’re able to have most of the hibernate files already pre-stored in Flash memory. So rather than having to write it out to the hard disk drive as is done in Windows XP, most of it can be there already, and you can power down the system fairly rapidly.

“On the resume side,” Barnetson continued, “Microsoft is doing a lot of work with BIOS vendors to reduce the POST time.” Today’s power-up cycles, he explained, consist of the BIOS executing its Power-On Self-Test (POST) cycle at the same time the hard drive is spinning up to speed. Once both parallel cycles are completed, the system can finally start recovering its suspend file, for a total process consumption time of 20 seconds or more. “In the future, that POST time will be reduced to hopefully less than one second,” he predicted. This is because future boot cycles will stream recovery data from the Flash cache at the same time the platters are coming up to speed.

Samsung’s innovation in hard drives: Powering down

Perhaps the greatest single payoff from hybrid hard drives – one which Microsoft often completely overlooks – may come in the power department. Up to this point in history, hard disk drives have been defined by the consistency of their spinning. Now, for the first time in the history of the component, a hard drive’s platters will be triggered to power down while the drive is still active and accessible. Reads and writes can still take place from the cache during these down periods, then almost like an optical disc drive, the platters can be brought back up to speed when necessary, perhaps as seldom as once every ten minutes, according to the targets to which Samsung’s Barnetson refers.

“It’s the fastest Flash in the world,” he boasted, “so it makes tremendous sense that it reads faster than anything else, which allows you to do faster resume and boot times; and it writes faster than virtually any other Flash, which allows you to shut down and suspend your notebook faster.”

Desktop computers would enjoy nominal power benefits, while notebook computers could find their battery life improving by leaps and bounds, all without modifications to the battery itself. But perhaps benefiting most from this new component would be servers, which utilize the broadest amount of storage of any computer category, and which could also be capable of fine-tuning hybrid drive power consumption rates, to make the most of the Flash cache.

It is an extremely appealing argument in favor of this bright, new technology. On the surface, there’s no reason for anyone not to want it, and even its expected price premiums could be well justified. But even if Microsoft goes ahead and converts its suggestions to OEMs into mandates, will that be enough to jump-start an entirely new category of storage technology?

Or is that really the plan? While it’s nice to be on the ground floor of a burgeoning new technology, it’s also very nice – as Microsoft has learned over the years – to occupy the second, third, and fourth through thirty-ninth floors simultaneously. “Samsung, as a maker of flash memory and disk drives would love to see their technologies integrated in a cogent way, such as this,” remarked Marc Farley, president of Building Storage, Inc., and author of the book Building Storage Networks. “As a second tier disk drive manufacturer, broad HDD technology acceptance could potentially leapfrog [Samsung] past Seagate, Western Digital, and Hitachi, to name a few. There is little doubt that Samsung would subsidize the cost of the Flash components, to do this. All the first-tier drive manufacturers are at a disadvantage if Samsung can pull this off.”

Would Samsung have any viable competition if Microsoft were to arbitrarily declare hybrid HDDs a real, if not compulsory, market? TG Daily asked Mark Noblitt, manager for I/O market development at Seagate Technology, about the progress his company is making in ascertaining the market needs for hybrid HDD. “Currently, Seagate’s taking a really close look at hybrid drives, looking at the benefit analysis. We’re looking at what hybrid really has to offer, and we’re looking at several areas: improvement in reliability, performance, and power savings and battery life…From a technology point of view, we’re thinking that those benefits are real; we just need to underpin them at this time. We’re in the research phase.”

Noblitt agreed that Seagate – or most any other HDD manufacturer, for that matter – would have to forge a strategic agreement with a Flash memory producer, if it were to compete in the hybrid HDD space with Samsung. But beyond that, he declined comment on all other matters regarding the progress of Seagate’s research and various “underpinning” efforts.

Cost, as IDC program director for storage research Dave Reinsel pointed out, is an enormous factor in the consideration of companies in Seagate’s position, not just because it would cost more to retool factories and integrate new technologies, but because of the value proposition itself: Almost by definition, a hybrid hard drive is a replacement device, and there is no replacement anywhere in business without cost. “Inventory management is another issue with HDD OEMs,” stated Reinsel, along with “the issue of an end user replacing a ‘traditional’ with a ‘hybrid’ or vice versa.”

But at the same time Samsung and Microsoft are looking to add Flash memory to the hard drive, Intel and Microsoft are aiming to add Flash to the motherboard, Reinsel pointed out. The implication here is, customers could perhaps perceive the infusion of Flash in the system as, to borrow a concept from Arlo Guthrie, one big cost rather than two littler ones, and could conceivably embrace the bigger cost as just easier to swallow. “Ultimately, it is a seamless technology improvement for the user,” he said. “Adoption or acceptance by the user will be dependent on the end-benefits…[and] the benefits are not proven out.”

Also, as Marc Farley pointed out, “Microsoft doesn’t make the systems; companies like Dell and HP do, and they call the shots here. No PC manufacturer wants to increase the cost of their products compared to other vendors. So unless Samsung provides hard drives for the same or less money than their competition, there is a reasonable chance the manufacturers will not spec it into their systems, for fear of reducing their already razor-thin margins.”

Farley explained that Seagate and others may have good cause to take their time “underpinning” the benefits Microsoft and Samsung are touting. Flash memory, he noted, wears out, perhaps after a million or so writes. “If the drive has a high duty cycle, how can you predict overall drive reliability?” In a server environment, he said, you might do this by reserving a segment of Flash memory – in a sense, a cache of the cache – for use in error correction. Whether Samsung would choose to do this with its own architecture remains to be seen. Furthermore, with Microsoft leading the development of operating system drivers for hybrid drives, the choice to implement such reliability features may not be Samsung’s alone.

What’s more, Farley said, Flash memory is perhaps slower than HDD, if not the same speed, in write cycles. “Performance-sensitive applications with heavy write activity will not see much of a performance advantage,” he predicted. “In fact, they could even be slowed somewhat. There is no data on this yet. There is no question that it would be an advantage if boot information could be written and ‘pegged’ in Flash [a term Microsoft has used] to decrease boot time, but will people pay more for this? More importantly, will PC vendors try to make this a differentiator?”

If manufacturers refuse to go along with Microsoft’s mandate, should that come, then that leaves Samsung pretty much on its own, in an industry unto itself. On the one hand, that sounds pretty good. But islands, especially in the geography of technology, lack a tendency to become continents under their own power. “Its doubtful that Samsung will be able to do this on the scale it needs to be done,” remarked Farley, “but they have been amazingly successful in other technologies, such as LCD monitors, with being able to provide good technology at lower costs. Samsung is clearly a motivated behemoth.”

As far as other similarly motivated behemoths may be concerned, Farley told us, “I think this is another example of Microsoft trying to overcome the shortcomings of its own technology by trying to force an invention of some new technology in other parts of the industry. It probably won’t work, for financial reasons. I for one, just wish Microsoft could figure out how to make their software better without asking us all to take risks on new unproven technologies from a single source vendor.”

So suppose you’re a manufacturer with a technology that could change the dynamics of the whole computer industry. You get the solid endorsement of the one supporting manufacturer that really counts. Within a year, there could even be a requirement that your technology be included in computers, in order for them to receive special certification. Conceivably, you should have it made. But in this strange business you’ve chosen to deal in, you realize you might not gain the acceptance of the public unless the benefits of your technology have been proven to the satisfaction…of your own competitors. And you need those competitors in order for the public to accept your product as part of a real and viable market. When you’re just trying to carve out a name for yourself and a new market you can call your own, sometimes working with Microsoft and working with the broader ecosystem of computing can seem like two separate universes.