It isn’t every day that a new hard disk technology is introduced, but Samsung recently did just that with the introduction of their SpinPoint MH80. This conventional looking SATA hard drive packs 256 MB of NAND flash memory alongside two conventional platters totaling 160 GB of traditional magnetic storage. Tellingly, it’s a 2.5” laptop drive with only 8 MB of cache.
This on board flash memory is what makes the drive a hybrid. If you listen to the marketing spin, you would think that this drive would dramatically improve response time and battery life, but a thorough review over at Tom’s Hardware shows that this isn’t the case, even for a laptop running Microsoft’s Windows Vista.
Vista is the only operating system that’s currently capable of taking advantage of the flash memory in a hybrid drive. See, these drives contain an extended version of the serial ATA command set which allows the host to direct I/O to either the flash or the magnetic platter — the drive doesn’t do it on its own.
So hybrid drives are more of a packaging exercise that a real technology improvement. They simply allow operating system to access flash memory and use it as it sees fit. While I’m certain that other operating systems, especially Linux, will quickly support this flash memory, I’m much more dubious about the long-term impact on it. Intel has their own specification for adding flash memory to an x86 motherboard called Turbo Memory (code name Robson) which is already gaining traction with many OEMs, including Apple! In practice, hybrid drives are just alternative to Robson.
So what will be the impact of hybrid drives on the world of enterprise storage? Probably very little, at least for the time being. Tests of Microsoft’s ReadyBoost technology have shown the practical impact of flash memory of operating system is small. Solid state disk technology is unlikely to gain widespread use without some real performance improvements to report, and if it ever does it would probably be implemented very differently than the current crop of hyper drives, or Intel’s Rob son for that matter. So hybrid drives are here, but no one cares.