Can HDDs Make It in the Cloud?

Arthur Cole
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The hard drive market continues to be somewhat of an enigma these days. Sure, they are useful and provide levels of reliability and durability that outclass solid-state solutions, but the enterprise is heading toward the cloud and the cloud is built on solid state. So why on earth would anyone throw money behind continued HDD development?

The latest results from Seagate should serve as a strong warning to those looking to build storage around spinning media. Despite having nearly a 40 percent share of the market, the company is still facing a 23 percent decline in third-quarter revenue, driven largely by reduced demand for HDD-based mission-critical storage. For a long while, it was believed that while the enterprise would deploy Flash and memory-based solutions for key applications that require fast turnaround, the most important data would be reserved for the hard disk. Apparently, this is no longer the case, or at the very least, the amount of data deemed “mission critical” is not expanding rapidly enough to warrant more storage.

And yet the HDD wagon rolls along. Western Digital recently released the new Gold line of 8 TB solutions aimed directly at data center applications. The thinking, says PC Perspective’s Allyn Malventano, is that while SSDs are encroaching on small capacity 10k and 15k drives, the enterprise will still have a need for large capacity media. Add the fact that the new drives feature the company’s Helium-filled design, and Western Digital says it can provide a price-performance ratio that should put its HDDs on an equal footing with SSDs for some time to come.


But as Google pointed out in a white paper recently, it’s not capacity or speed that make HDDs unsuitable for the cloud, but the way in which most drives are tailored for legacy data center and consumer applications. A case in point is data reliability. A server-facing drive is usually optimized for a low bit error rate (BER), which tends to drive up the cost. But this is not as crucial in the cloud because data is mirrored across multiple locations, so minimizing BER on any one drive is overkill. As well, traditional drives offer single-key, data-at-rest encryption, whereas shared cloud services require a more fine-grained, multi-key approach.

And yet, with cloud providers eager to draw more of the lucrative enterprise workload, perhaps there is hope for the hard disk after all. Amazon recently announced a pair of low-cost options for its Amazon Elastic Block Store that rely on HDDs for Big Data and other high-volume workloads. The EBS Throughput Optimized HDD and Amazon EBS Cold HDD services are designed for consistent performance and rapid burst capabilities for applications like MapReduce, Kafka, ETL and the like. For as little as 2.5 cents per GB per month, the services offer throughput up to 500 MB per second per volume and five-nines availability.

So it may be that the hard disk has some shelf-life in the new digital economy, but only if manufacturers take their eyes off the enterprise applications of the past and train them on the cloud functions of the future.

In this day and age, technology plays a secondary role to performance, and as long as users get what they want when they want it, it won’t matter whether the bits are kept on silicon or magnetized iron.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.



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