The Next Step for Storage . . . .

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Putting Rust To Sleep

Apparently, MS doesn’t want a hard drive in the next XBox2.

Instead, they want to go with flash memory.

What does this mean?

The Good: Performance

Using flash memory rather than a hard drive the way MS apparently intends is good, but not as good as some people might think.

The way you have to think about this is to realize this is really a flash card rather than a hard drive hooked into that ATA cable. It is not like adding gigabytes of RAM to your main memory.

Hard drives take time doing two things. It takes time for it to find what you want, then it takes more time getting it into your memory.

What flash memory does in this situation is virtually eliminate the amount of time it takes to do the first, but it does nothing to reduce the time it takes to do the second.

So, on average (and this will vary a lot on what and how much data you’re moving), a ballpark figure on the level of improvement you can expect in a desktop environment from current implementations of flash drives is a doubling of performance.

That’s pretty good, it just isn’t miraculous.

The Bad: Cost

Flash memory prices have been dropping a lot. They’ll drop a lot more over the next two years or so, but it’s still hard to see how MS can stick enough flash memory in to make an XBox2 a practical desktop box.

I think you’d need 4Gb for it to have a fighting chance as a desktop for those with minimal computer needs.

There’s really two issues here. First, can the price of 4Gb of flash drop enough to make it reasonably affordable, period? Second, can the price of 4Gb of flash drop enough to make it affordable enough for Microsoft to include it?

The answer could well be “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second. Then it becomes a question of whether you could add enough flash affordably (or maybe even at all) to the system.

What Do You Mean, Nothing Else?

Obviously, if you have 300Gb of MP3s, movies, porn, warez, or all of the above right now, this machine won’t be to your liking (by then, you’ll probably have 3 terabytes of the aforementioned items).

Then again, such folks probably wouldn’t touch it because it will probably have DRM up the kazoo.

For others, if the XBox2 has a Firewire port, you have an optional hard drive built in. If it doesn’t, for those with a bit less baggage, it still has a place for a CD, which should turn into at least a DVD player, and at least leave a place for a DVD recorder in two years. Tomorrow’s dual-layer DVD-recorder ought to be pretty cheap by then. 8.5Gb storage per disk ought to be fine for most people.

The real problem isn’t the lack of options, but rather additional cost. If you end up buying external hard drives and DVD recorders to fit into your XBox2, you might as well buy a PC.

All this leads one to the sneaky suspicion that XBox2 may not really be meant as a substitute desktop, at least initially.

Even if that’s the case, though, there is one very likely benefit from this decision.

Leveraging the Investment

The company that is supposed to provide these flash hard drives, M Systems, already makes a wide range of these type products for people willing to pay for the speed and reliability of such drives.

Now they’ll be ask to make millions and millions of them for a much lower price. Seems to me to be a no-brainer for them to take that R&D, supersize it, and offer it for sale in PCs.

The idea is to store your apps and critical files in flash, and use the hard drive for bulk storage.

I may well be wrong, but perhaps such a device could be even faster than what we see today simply because it may be easier for such a device to transfer at say SATA-II limits than hard drives are likely to reach anytime soon.

Or maybe you could RAID them.

Oodles of gigabytes of cheap static system memory (RAM that remembers even after you turn the box off) would be a lot better of course, and plenty of people are working on that, but they may well not pan out anytime soon, and flash memory is a proven medium-term fallback sneaking up from behind.

It may seem silly today, but in a world where a nanosecond is becoming a long time, milliseconds start looking like geological eras. What’s the point in having an oven that can cook a meal in a second when it takes two weeks for the next batch of food to arrive?

Ed

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