Hybrid storage solutions

By reeset / On / In General Computing

While I was at the PASIG conference this last weekend, a number of people talked about the death of the harddrive, at least in the sense of our personal portable devices.  The popularity of ultrabooks and small form notebooks was discussed many times, noting that personal computing will move more and more away from local copies to cloud-based drives because:

  • Solid State Drives provide the instant on/performance that people are wanting in their portable devices
  • The Expense of Solid State drives and their current relative small size will eventually relegate storage off the local device and into the cloud.

While I certainly agree that this likely will continue to be a trend (look at how tools like Dropbox are changing the way researchers store and share their data), I think think that many of the folks at PASIG may be too quick to overlook some of the very cool developments related to SSD technology that allow for microform factors, allowing ultra portables to support both a traditional SSD drive and the more traditional spinning drive.  Of course, I’m talking about the current work being done with msata drives. 

Currently, there are very few mainstream systems that support msata technology, which is unfortunate because these really are cool devices.  The two best probably are produced by Intel, which produces a 40 GB and 80 GB flavor of their drive (http://ark.intel.com/products/56547/Intel-SSD-310-Series-(80GB-mSATA-3Gbs-34nm-MLC)).  When I was looking for a replacement laptop this last month, I was looking specifically for a device that had both a SSD and traditional drive setup.  However, my requirements that the system be under 4 lbs and compact made this a difficult search.  However, in doing my research, I stumbled upon the Intel msata drive system. 

Now SSD drives are small to begin with, but the msata drives are downright microscopic.  The image below, taken from a review of these devices, shows just how small.  In fact, when I ordered one, I had a hard time believing that they really got an 80 GB drive on a chip a little bit bigger than a quarter.  Yet, they did.

(Image linked from http://hothardware.com/Reviews/Intel-310-Series-80GB-SSD-Review/)

So how well does this work?  From my limited experience with it (about 2 weeks) – great.  Intel provides a set of disk tools that allow you to migrate your current partitions onto the SSD disk – however, I choose to do a fresh install.  Installing Windows and all my programs onto the SSD drive cost me ~35 GB.  Setting up a little symlinking, I moved all the data components to the traditional harddrive (500 GB), leaving the SSD for just the operating system and programs.  Then I tested.

When I first received the laptop, I did some start up and shutdown testing.  On a clean system, the laptop, running a I-7 with 8 GB of RAM would take approximately 35 seconds for Windows 7 to finish it’s startup cycle.  Not bad, but not great.  Additionally, on a full charge, the system would run for ~3.7 hours on the battery (not good).  Running the Windows Experience tests, it gave the 500 GB, 7200 rpm drive a 6.2 (of 7.9) performance score.

After installing the msata drive and making it the primary boot partition, I gave the tests another whirl and the difference was striking.  First, on the Windows Experience testing, there was a significant different in rating.  Using the SSD as the primary system disk, the Experience tests gave the Intel 80 GB msata drive a score of 7.7 (of 7.9) – a pretty high score.  So what does that mean in real life?  Well, let’s start with boot times.  From a cold boot, it now takes Windows 7 approximately 5-7 seconds.  Closing the lid and opening it back up has essentially become instance on (for a while, I was wondering if the system was actually going to sleep when I closed the lid because it was on as soon as I opened it).  And finally, battery life.  On a full charge, under heavy use at the PASIG conference, I got nearly 8 hours on a single charge. 

While the move away from local disks may indeed happen in the near future, my more recent laptop purchasing experience showed me that for those that want to continue to have a very high performance system, with an small form factor – it is possible to have the best of both worlds utilizing these emerging SSD technologies to create very high performance (and relatively low-cost) portal systems.