Western Digital Still Evaluating Hybrid Hard Drives

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Solid state drives have been making waves in the storage industry since they first entered the consumer market about four years ago, but Western Digital is still dubious about the value of both SSD's and hybrid drives. In a recent company call with investors, Western Digital's CEO, John Coyne, remarked: ""We have taken a look at and in fact shipped product into the SSD, in the client environment, and we do not find a compelling value proposition there either for manufacturer or for customer because the economics do not work. The cost of the storage/performance is too high."  Asked what the company's position is regarding hybrid drives, Coyne responded: "We also continue to evaluate the opportunity to combine rotating magnetic storage with flash into hybrid solutions."

A few years ago, back when SSDs were much smaller and far more expensive than they are today, hard drive manufacturers began talking up what they called a hybrid hard drive, or HHD. Like the best combination of chocolate and peanut butter, HHD's were billed as potentially delivering significantly more performance than any conventional drive while remaining far below the premium price point of pure solid-state drives.

Seagate's Momentus Hybrid Hard Drive

While theoretically the perfect answer to the price/performance gap between HDDs and SSDs, Hybrid hard drives have never materialized in quantity. Seagate is the only company that's recently launched a drive; we reviewed its Momentus XT last summer. Western Digital has an consumer-oriented SSD product line dubbed Silicon Edge Blue, but a visit to the company's website illustrates that SSDs are a small segment of WD's larger business plan.

Western Digital's studied nonchalance may be a smart move in the long run. At present, flash memory faces serious scaling problems below 25nm. While there are multiple companies working to resolve the data retention / lifespan issues, many of the potential changes will themselves impact either manufacturing cost or drive performance. These problems won't prevent SSDs from continuing to gain market share, but they aren't going to overturn and replace conventional hard drives.

The other factor Coyne cited as a strike against SSDs/HHDs is the current state of OS support. "We look out into the future where such a device would be supported by operating system capability, which it is not really supported well today," Coyne said. "As we look at that over the next couple of years, we see an emerging opportunity for such a device family to offer performance capacity and value."

This is a solid point. In theory, the flash memory built into a hybrid drive acts as a further buffer zone between the CPU and the need to access the achingly slow physical hard drive. Simply plugging flash into the system, however, doesn't exactly do the trick. In order to take full advantage of the cache, Windows needs to know what sort of data it should keep there. Equally important is the need to limit the number of read/write cycles to the flash cache itself—constantly updating small portions of the cache could lead to abnormal wear leveling or shorten the flash memory's lifespan.

We wouldn't be surprised if WD's next-generation VelociRaptor hard drive, when it eventually appears, is an HHD. Until better algorithms and OS support are both in place, however, it may make good sense for the established HDD manufacturers to primarily focus on their traditional mobile/desktop/enterprise products. Further advances in solid state technology may eventually combine the price of spinning media and the performance of SSDs, but it's not going to happen anytime soon. 
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coolice replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 9:11 AM

I Sitll dont know whats the reason for buying a hybrid drive. I mean sure its a tad bit faster... But, and this is perhaps i'm still a poor ol' student, why would i spend 120$ on a 1tb hhd if i can get a 1tb regular hdd for as little as 50$ now.

Perhaps its just me, but i still prefer a smaller seperate hard drive for my desktop. A nice 40 - 120gb hdd solely for THE OS, a 250 - 500 gb for apps and such, and finally 1-2tb for data and back ups

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rapid1 replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 12:00 PM

Yes; that is how I run my system as well well at least in partitions. The 64Gb SSD is the OS drive, and I have two 750Gb Hhd's split up into 2 Vd's , a Backup, Media, and Program's partition. Of course the biggest thing is the 2 750Gb (WD black 750, and a Samsung Spinpoint 750 drive cost me under $100), where as at the time I got the SSD it was roughly the same price or slightly more.

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3vi1 replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 12:22 PM

Ditto to what you guys said.

Hybrid drives may provide a benefit for low-end single drive systems, but low end systems tend to emphasize price over performance, so I don't see the market for these.

I'm much happier with two separate drives - SSD for mostly static "write once, read many" files, and a standard HDD for the stuff that constantly churns.

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Joel H replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 12:26 PM

Like SSDs, HDDs are most promising in mobile devices. Since most laptops don't include dual hard-drive bays, a hybrid drive could offer some of an SSD's performance and significantly more storage space.

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JKing replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 8:55 PM

Just buy a Vertex 2, you will never want to use a normal hard drive again.

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Joel H replied on Tue, Jan 25 2011 4:49 PM

Except when you need storage space. :P My current rig has ~5.4TB of HDD space and it's ~50% full. I can see an argument for moving most of it to externals that are only powered up when needed but there's no way I could pare down enough to fit work+entertainment on a 120GB drive. 256GB+ SSD's are still far out of my price range.

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realneil replied on Tue, Jan 25 2011 7:39 PM

I have a Seagate 500GB Hybrid in my Dell Laptop and it works great. It boots faster with that drive in there and it's performance seems to be quicker too.

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