The interior of a hard disk always reminds me of an old-fashioned record player—except that the fastest a record spins is 78 RPMs, and the average 3.5” (desktop-sized) hard disk spins at 7200 RPMs. Your car would be redlining if it reached that speed. I know manual transmissions are almost as rare as vinyl albums these days, but it’s just possible some of you have seen an analog tachometer before. If the car’s crankshaft is turning at 7200 RPMs, you’re going to burn out your engine.
If you think about it in those terms, it’s no surprise that hard drives wear out—especially since the arm on a hard disk doesn’t touch the platters at all—or, at least, it had better not, or the result will be a lot worse than dragging the needle across a record and leaving a scratch. Take it from me, high-speed accidents are not pretty.
Despite their fragility, hard drives have been our best option for data storage so far—at least when we need to read, write, and retrieve data quickly. Imagine how slow it would be if you had a tape drive inside your computer and had to rewind it in order to get to a document you’d saved yesterday. And tape is just as vulnerable to the problem of moving parts, at least if you’re re-using it on a regular basis.
Now, however, it looks as though flash drives are poised to replace hard drives. Almost everyone seems to own at least one gadget that relies on flash memory: a digital camera, a USB memory stick, an MP3 player. Flash memory requires no moving parts, and you can drop a flash drive without catastrophic consequences. (My cousin’s first-generation iPod Shuffle actually survived a trip through the washer and dryer none the worse for wear, which amazes me.)
The first time I wrote about flash memory, back in October of 2004, it was still pretty unreliable. The built-in memory in a PDA was prone to “flash” out of existence if the device was left uncharged. Even as memory sticks became more reliable, and larger, they still suffered from a limitation on the number of times they could be overwritten. That problem has been largely overcome, leaving the proportionately higher cost of flash memory the last real barrier to replacing hard drives with flash drives.
I’d been reading about this for a while, but it was still all theoretical. In his last “Technology and You” column for BusinessWeek, Steve Wildstrom actually test-drove a flash-based laptop from Dell. (Well, okay, he test-drove it first and then wrote the column, unlike some of us, who write our reviews in the middle of checking out the product.) His conclusions were interesting:
First, the flash drive is noticeably faster for reading and writing, particularly when it comes to lots of small files. When I heard that (I was listening to the podcast version), I thought immediately of PT and his Maxtor Shared Storage woes. A large flash drive sounds like it could be the solution to storage problems involving zillions of tiny files, which clog networks and transfer at a glacial pace.
Second, a move away from hard drives could mean a substantial change in the design of laptops, which will no longer need to make space for a traditional 2.5” (or even 1.8”) drive. Though, on second thought, I’m not sure how substantial it can be and still accommodate a keyboard, a screen, and an optical drive. I guess we’ll just have to find out.
Third, flash memory requires less power and produces less heat than a magnetic drive. That means longer battery life for your laptop. (It’s also a lot quieter.)
Fourth—and this is the bad news—Dell’s surcharge for providing a flash-based drive instead of a traditional hard drive is $500. You can buy a lot of hard drive for that kind of money.
So I think it will be a while yet before flash drives replace hard drives in most computers, even for the early-adopter types. Perhaps by the time I next buy a new laptop (which I envision as being at least two years from now), flash drives will be more common. But it’s going to take much longer before flash drives dominate enterprises or educational institutions, neither of which replaces anything until it breaks. And I have no idea whether you could create RAID storage with flash drives, or whether flash memory would be feasible for a server.
In any case, even if we do reach an era where drive failure is almost unheard-of, it won’t mean an end to the need for backups. The most common cause of data loss is human error, and that’s not likely to change just because of hardware improvements. Nor will flash drives do anything to keep out viruses or spyware, or to prevent your system from crashing at an inconvenient moment. So don’t think you’re about to be let off the hook!