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:

usbdrives.jpg

There are three types of memory displayed there:

  • 2 Compact Flash (CF) memory cards (one 128 and the other 256 megabytes);
  • 3 Secure Digital (SD) memory cards (two 512 megabytes and one 4 Gigabytes); and
  • one old clunker 4.3 Gigabyte IDE hard drive (with an attached USB cable).
  • 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.)

    Now, because of the size limitation, I have been using Puppy and Slax, both of which are designed to be small, and which boot just perfectly from the 256 megabyte SD memory sticks.

    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.

    Hmmmm...

    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 can't begin to tell you what this ultimately means for the computer, PDA, cell phone and portable music device industries. The only thing that might slow down SSD acceptability is the price. Currently, SanDisk's 32GB SSD will sell for $600. But, I would expect that price will drop as more and more companies choose solid-state 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:

    44pinIDE_CF.jpg

    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.

    Outwardly, there's a convincing logic to this argument, especially when you consider what's happened in other markets where devices with moving parts faced competition from solid state electronics. Televisions, telephony and radio equipment, clocks, automobile ignition ... the list is endless, and in every case it's ended up with the same result: solid state electronic devices have won because they are cheaper to make, more reliable, and offer similar or (usually) superior performance.

    So when it comes to storage planning, it's sensible to at least consider when flash-based solid state drives (SSDs) might take over from conventional hard disk drives (HDDs). Right now, SSDs are significantly more expensive per gigabyte than HDDs, and while they offer very fast read speeds, they suffer from slower write speeds, and from the limited number of times flash cells can be written to before they wear out.

    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.

    Scary, huh?

    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.[8] Micron Technology and Sun Microsystems announced an SLC flash memory chip rated for 1,000,000 write-erase-cycles on December 17, 2008.

    [...]

    There is also some concern that the finite number of erase/write cycles of flash memory would render flash memory unable to support an operating system. This seems to be a decreasing issue as warranties on flash-based SSDs are approaching those of current hard drives.

    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:

    40PinToCF.jpg

    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.

    2.Compact Flash to IDE adapter provides an alternative for data storage.

    3.No software driver needed.

    4.Back panel version and Bootable.

    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










    Comments

    *I think I forgot to mention that flash memory cards do not break if you drop them. (But that's obvious, right?)

    Tell that to my cat who somehow managed to wind his tail around the USB cord going to a 750gig portable (standalone? outside-the-case?) HD and drag it onto the floor. Now all it does is make awful noises if I power it up.

    I think all it was used for was to do weekly automated backups so all I lost was the $75 it cost, but still. Now I'm off to look around at the other cool stuff you talked about in this post.

    Thanks,

    John

    John   ·  May 1, 2010 1:54 PM

    John, you seem to be confused. Your MECHANICAL hard drive broke when the cat pulled it off the table. If you'd had a flash drive, it would be perfectly fine right now. Of course, nobody sells a 750gb SSD consumer drive right now, and the monster commercial SSD's that get into that range cost over $100k.

    David   ·  May 1, 2010 9:56 PM

    David. No, I'm not confused. I knew a flash drive wouldn't have broken where my mechanical drive did. It was just lousy working as I was trying to pick on my dumb cat.

    I'm blame my poor wording on brain drain after spending a big chunk of time trying to re-learn CSS and making the same layout work and look similiar across windows and mac and IE and firefox. I know it can be done, just not by me. At least not thbis weekend.

    John   ·  May 2, 2010 8:15 PM

    It should be noted that many of the very cheap flash-to-IDE adapters are at best flaky and persnickety at booting - even when they swear they're bootable.

    There's a lot of room for interactions with the BIOS preventing bootability, or simply not being bootable at all, despite claiming to be.

    (And on write cycles, they all use wear-leveling these days, cleverly logically moving data to differnt physical parts of the disk, transparent to the filesystem level.

    As long as one doesn't expect flash to last forever, it shouldn't be a big problem. Flash is not a replacement for backups... because bugs, viruses, OS issues, and user error all also destroy your data even when the storage medium is fine.)

    Sigivald   ·  May 3, 2010 2:32 PM

    So far, I've been able to boot up and run both Puppy and Slax just on the 512Meg SD cards. (Of course, these are very streamlined systems. But there's something incredibly cool about seeing a fingernail-sized memory stick running a big tower PC.)

    Eric Scheie   ·  May 3, 2010 3:54 PM

    There is a magnetic solid state memory that is coming on strong that does not have the wear issues of flash. Unfortunately it is a single company technology.

    And thanks for the link.

    M. Simon   ·  May 5, 2010 10:51 AM

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