Disk Speed Stuck in Neutral

Arthur Cole

One of the more troubling aspects of network and computer development is that while processor speeds, server performance and storage capacity may be on the rise, storage speed has been relatively flat for more than a decade. This is proving to be increasingly troublesome as enterprises of all stripes continue to deal with larger and larger data blocks.


And relief doesn't appear to be just around the corner. A piece at internetnews.com says researchers in Holland say they have, on paper at least, a laser-based hard drive that can write data as fast as 40 femtoseconds -- that would be 40 millionths of a nanosecond. The system would use reverse polarity of light pulses to etch zeros and ones on a disk -- again, if it ever comes to fruition.


While promising, the laser approach does have some drawbacks. For one, the recording area is 5 microns wide, compared to less than half-a-micron for current drives. So disk capacity will suffer. Secondly, the laser only performs the write function. Read is still done by a traditional magnetic disk head.


Current disk drives are limited by their rotational speed, which most experts agree has reached the limits of what is physically possible. So some firms are angling for workarounds. DataDirect Networks has what it calls the Silicon Storage Appliance, which processes data in parallel through a series of FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays). With the storage controller logic carried in hardware, the company can more tightly integrate switches, virtualization, RAID, caches and other components into a single box, effectively shuttling data between upwards of 1,000 drives reaching a petabyte or more.


If current trends are any indication, disk-based storage has a long shelf life ahead of it, particularly for backup services, reports IT Pro. The latest research says that the financial sector, in particular, is eager to dump tape-based systems for disk. So there is clearly incentive to find a better, faster way of getting data onto and off of the disk.


As anyone who has ever clicked a mouse or hit a key only to get back a big, fat nothing, data access is the key to virtually any computer environment. And with disk performance stuck in neutral, even the most state-of-the-art network upgrades will offer only limited performance gains.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 7, 2007 6:58 AM Derick Thomson Derick Thomson  says:
Yeah, hard drives are always the bottleneck these days because of the mechanical nature of their operation, while CPUs, RAM and graphics subsystems dont have to worry about such problems. The laser HDD sounds interesting, and I also read about some technology developed by IBM (IIRC, but I am not 100% sure) which makes use of dynamic phase change of the electromagnetic coating on the platter to store information. These are cool technologies, but it will be a while before they land up in consumers' hands at a favourable price/performance ratio. Look at available SSDs in laptops- they have some good advantages, but currently exhorbitant costs and limited capacity make them more of a niche product.There are still ways in which you can squeeze performance from existing HDDS, with intelligent partitioning/distribution and regular defragmentation. Defrag in particular is often overlooked (there are many skeptics!) , but will help keep performance in good shape, particularly on enterprise drives that see heavy I/O activity. We have servers on which Diskeeper Enterprise Server runs, and is set on the auto-defrag mode. It does a great job in keeping fragmentation related slowdowns under control. This is invaluable because we dont have to schedule defrags during the few hours of low activity that we get every week. That time is better utilized for something else.Wait for a few years more, and maybe we can complain about something else being the bottleneck rather than HDDs :P Reply

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