A New Twist on the Hybrid Drive

Arthur Cole

Hybrid hard drives -- those that combine varying degrees of magnetic and flash memory to improve performance and lower costs -- are starting to grow more diverse now that the initial concept has been proven in the field.


Traditional storage vendors such as Samsung, Hitachi and Fujitsu recently have banded together to promote hybrid technology, but their efforts already are being challenged by lesser-known companies fostering competing designs.


One of them is Japan's DTS, which has developed the Memory Cell (M-Cell) by combining a magnetic drive with a 1 GB DDR RAM cache. The company says this combination, plus a proprietary I/O management chip, offers the speed and performance benefits of solid-state drives at a much lower price. They claim read speeds of 110 MBps for data sizes up to 512 MB. Anything larger than that exceeds the cache, with a corresponding drop in performance.


Physically, the M-Cell is kind of an odd duck. It's a 3.5-inch frame containing a 2.5-inch SATA drive rated at 5400 rpm. The drive also contains a real-time operating system and C4 application-acceleration software. And because DRAM is volatile memory, it has a built-in UPS backup.


Laptops are the primary market for hybrid drives, although some folks are no doubt eyeing it for desktops or even servers. One of the primary drivers for hybrid-based laptops is Vista, which requires a fair amount of memory to accommodate the Aero interface. It turns out that Vista is very Flash-friendly, using it to boot up and shut down apps like Office more quickly.


Meanwhile, Seagate Technology, which already makes the hybrid Momentus 5400 drive, has announced that it is entering the solid-state drive (SSD) market with a line of Flash-based devices in 2008. The company hopes to target laptops and desktops with a rugged, energy-conscious system. It will be interesting to see whether Seagate can overcome the main drawback to solid-state so far: price.


Magnetic drives have served the industry well over the years. But issues such as weight and power consumption can no longer be ignored, especially among the laptop set. The question remains, though, whether hybrids and SSDs are ready to step up.

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