Experts see wide use of flash-hard disk hybrids by 2016

Hybrid drives will keep costs down while approaching solid-state drive performance, two storage experts said

A quarter of new laptops and half of new desktop PCs will adopt an emerging data storage method by 2016, pairing flash memory with traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) for better overall performance, according to two storage experts.

Flash paired with HDDs will also cost users less than rival solid-state drives (SSDs), they said.

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Although the quieter, faster, more shock-absorbent SSDs are replacing HDDs in new computers, their relatively high cost will keep HDDs in most PCs over the years ahead, said Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, and Jim Handy, an analyst with Objective Analysis.

The analysts predict 53 percent of PCs and 25 percent of laptops will have paired flash and HDDs by 2016.

NAND flash memory, the main storage chips inside iPhones, iPads and SSDs, can offer a welcome layer of caching and buffering between HDDs and higher-performance DRAM memory, Coughlin and Handy explained in a report published by the Storage Networking Industry Association, a group of 400 member companies.

The use of flash will become more critical because of a growing "performance gap" between DRAM and rotating storage such as hard disk drives, they said.

Extra caching would take pressure off the hard disk drive to provide temporary data storage. The pairing could also cut system power consumption.

"Rather than displacing HDDs, flash memory will allow customers to keep their low-cost HDD storage while enjoying performance enhancements that approach those of a pure SSD-based computer," the report said. "The required modicum of flash memory will be inexpensive enough to afford users these benefits without requiring a significant price premium."

"Paired Storage," a name given by the association to the flash chip-HDD scheme, is already being used in data centers and high performance computing operations.

Several approaches are in use today, including hybrid HDDs and flash on the computer motherboard. Only Seagate makes hybrid hard disk drives now, but the analysts expect most HDD makers to follow soon.

They also predict the innovation will bring about a new kind of tablet, the hottest consumer product of the year. The new device, the "fat tablet" will combine flash memory with hard disk drives as today's tablets lack power to give businesses and other users what they need, the analysts said. Forty percent of the total tablet market will be "fat" by 2016, the two U.S.-based experts forecast.

Flash technology for its part is improving. Earlier this month a flash working group announced a new interface specification that could accelerate data transfers from storage products such as SSDs.

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