April 30, 2010
Wasn't the buggy whip industry once too big to fail?
While I don't know how socialist a country has to become before it stops working, I think we're fixing to find out pretty soon unless something happens to reverse the tide.
But I learned something fascinating in the past couple of days which made me wonder how entrenched a particular well-entrenched technology industry might become before it stops working.
Let me explain by backing up a bit. (with apologies to my geekier readers who will no doubt be rolling their eyes over my slowness). It's been taking me a little while to get up to speed on Linux (which I used to enjoy back in the 90s when you had to be much more of a geek than you do now), but one of the biggest thrills I've had lately was to make several bootable, fully operational, turnkey operating systems, out of almost nothing but a few spare parts I had lying around.
These spare parts:
There are three types of memory displayed there:
All except the 128 CF (which is too small) and the 4 Gigabyte SD (which goes in my camera) were used to create fully bootable, fully operational Linux operating systems which will run any computer which has a BIOS allowing USB devices to be set to boot. Nearly all do these days, but even the older ones can still be set to boot a CF drive in the PCMCIA adaptor. Which means that those small pieces of plastic can operate virtually any conventional PC. So can the even tinier Micro Drives (although although they said to be less stable than the larger cards and unsuitable for frequent write cycles.)
But with the 4.3 Gigabyte hard drive, I had plenty of space left. As I would had I used my 4 Gigabyte camera memory stick.
Notice anything about them? They are the same memory size! But look at the difference in physical size! And consider how complicated the hard drive is; it consists of God knows how many tiny moving parts, which have to be assembled, which draw electricity to run, and which break down in a relatively short amount of time. No surprise considering that they're constantly rotating metal platters with magnetic arms waving around.
It was when I was thinking that over that alarm bells went off. Suddenly it became painfully obvious to me that the mechanical hard drive industry is doomed.
This is not news for industry analysts, who have known it for some time. Here's Gary Krakow in 2007, in an MSNBC piece titled "Your hard drive is now obsolete":
In addition to being reliable, these drives are fast. SanDisk claims a sustained read rate of 62 megabytes per second and a random read rate of 7,000 inputs/outputs per second. In plain English, that means it's more than 100 times faster than most current hard disk drives.I don't know what their regular solid state drives go for now, but the 32 Gigabyte CF cards sell now for around $75.00 on Ebay.
And for 99 cents including shipping from China, you can get one of these:
That (with the CF card inserted into it) will plug right into your laptop's IDE hard drive socket, and you'll have a faster machine which will no make that whiny hard drive noise, and which won't waste nearly as much battery life.
I just spring for a buck so I can play around with building my own solid state hard drives. Granted, a 30 GB magnetic hard drive can now be had used for less than a CF card, and I recently replaced one in my laptop, but knowing what I know now, I might have tried replacing it with a memory stick and an adaptor. The smaller the drive, the more sense it makes.*
And the flash drives will keep getting cheaper.
This will surprise no one who is up on the technology, but it came as somewhat of a revelation for me. I would not want to be in the mechanical hard drive business right now, as things are going to change fast:
Mechanical hard drives with spinning disks are doomed to extinction, thanks to solid state flash drives that are becoming cheaper and offering greater capacity by the month. At least that's how some in the data storage industry see it.He estimates that in three years, prices will be competitive, but just from what I have seen in playing around, when you get down to the 30 Gigabyte or less, they already are competitive, and only a nut like me would even bother formatting and installing a bootable OS on a 4.3 Gigabyte hard drive.
However, another analyst argues that it's the solid state drives that are doomed, as performance degrades. It seems that there ought to be a way to make them re-formattable, and it would not surprise me if software is developed that renews worn out flash cells. But for now, he has a point; they do seem to have a limited life. One expert explains why this happens:
The "problem" is that memory can be flashed only so many times. I'm finding numbers between 10,000 and 100,000 times - though as with anything, I'm sure that is increasing over time as well. Regardless, there is a limit. When that limit is approached, some portion of the memory may not properly remember what was written to it, resulting in corruption. It may only take a single bit of information to be wrong, or to "wear out", for the entire contents of a flash memory chip to be lost.Yes, it is scary (especially because it sounds like what's happening in all of our brains), but it's also an argument in favor of backing up regularly onto some other medium, as well as free Linux (as opposed to expensive, non DIY systems like Windows).
And according to the Wiki entry on the subject, the above author may be pessimistic about the lifespan, because it's longer than he says, is getting longer, and the warranties are now comparable to magnetic hard drives:
Another limitation is that flash memory has a finite number of erase-write cycles. Most commercially available flash products are guaranteed to withstand around 100,000 write-erase-cycles, before the wear begins to deteriorate the integrity of the storage. Micron Technology and Sun Microsystems announced an SLC flash memory chip rated for 1,000,000 write-erase-cycles on December 17, 2008.One of the things I have noticed over the years is that problems like flash cell wear invite solutions through better technological improvements. Were I in the hard drive business, I would throw every dollar I could find into developing and patenting something -- anything -- to prevent or repair flash cell wear. But all in all, it doesn't seem to be a problem if your goal is to breathe new life into an old laptop.
Or even a desktop.
In that regard, let me humbly share something I found for sale on Ebay which just blew me away:
From the listing:
1.The compact flash card specification is fully IDE compatible which allows them to be used as hard drive replacements for embedded applications.Etc. (Of course it's bootable; the hard drive cable connects to it on the inside, and then plugs directly into the motherboard.)
Think about the possibilities. If you are running your computer on that instead of a hard drive, you could simply pull the thing out of the back of your machine every time you went on vacation, whenever you left your house, or for that matter whenever the PC Nazis came knocking at the door. Your tiny piece of plastic could be hidden anywhere, incinerated on a gas stove or with a propane torch, or thrown into a vat of battery acid. Poof! No more hard drive! I suspect such things cause a lot of grief in law enforcement/data sleuthing circles, but the important thing here is individual autonomy and privacy of the end user.
If the goal is having control over your computer, the flash drives win hands down.
At any rate, I sure hope the government doesn't decide the hard drive industry is too big to fail.
*I think I forgot to mention that flash memory cards do not break if you drop them. (But that's obvious, right?)
posted by Eric on 04.30.10 at 11:37 PM
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