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HDDs, The Next Generation: Drives With 4KB Sectors On The Way

HDDs, The Next Generation: Drives With 4KB Sectors On The Way
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Samsung has had a few hard drives that use sector sizes larger than the usual 512 bytes, such as the Spinpoint M7E and the portable S1 Mini. However, it is Western Digital that has launched a new product line, the EARS-series, and moved 4KB sectors into the mainstream. The reason for this change is an increase in net storage capacity due to decreased amounts of ECC information resulting from the larger sector size. We picked a Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB (WD10EARS) as a case study in the new technology.

Advanced Format

This term is specific to Western Digital, which refers to its latest 4K products as Advanced Format Drives. However, the term really means that the sector size has advanced from 512 bytes to 4KB. The main purpose is to increase capacity, but the actual implementation is not trivial.

Hard Drive Fundamentals

Hard drives consist of one or multiple rotating platters coated with a magnetizable surface. Heads mounted at the end of an arm take care of reading or writing on the surface, somewhat like the needle of a record player. In this case, though, heads are available on both sides of the platters. 

The surface of each platter is organized in concentric tracks. Each track consists of various sectors (our main focus in this article), and each sector holds a certain number of bits. Whether a bit has the value 0 or 1 is determined by its magnetic properties. All of the latest hard drives are based on so-called perpendicular magnetic recording technology, meaning that the magnetic grains on the platter surface are aligned vertically instead of horizontally, as on older generation of longitudinal recording drives. Perpendicular recording, also known as PMR, has allows for much higher data density, expressed in gigabits per square inch (Gb/inch²).

Ways to Increase Capacity

The traditional and most common way to increase capacity is through an increase in storage density. While Gb/inch² is the technically accurate way of expressing storage density, it's also common to talk about capacity per platter. A modern 3.5” hard drive can store 500GB per platter based on traditional 512 byte sectors. Meanwhile, 2.5” notebook hard drives are still at 320GB per platter. Obviously, a larger number of platters will also increase the total capacity, but this also increases cost and the number of moving parts.

Large Sector Size means Less Overhead

A larger sector size results in higher net capacities because it decreases the amount of ECC data and the inter-sector margins. WD says that going from 512 bytes to 4KB sector size results in a net capacity increase of 7 to 11 percent. ECC efficiency could also increase, as one long ECC code requires less computation than multiple small chunks. However, there are a few issues that users should be aware of.

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  • 0 Hide
    requiemsallure , February 26, 2010 5:34 AM
    I wouldnt have it as a boot drive (due to its write speed) but as a data drive, it would be quite nice.

    7-11% extra capacity for worse write speed, i would take that. seems like i may have found my next storage drive as soon as they offer higher capacities of this.
  • 1 Hide
    bgrngod , February 26, 2010 5:43 AM
    Soooo... any chance these are compatible with WHS systems? I didn't read the entire article but I saw no mention of it on the benchmarks and what I did read.
  • -5 Hide
    anamaniac , February 26, 2010 6:03 AM
    Don't really care.

    More interested to know when I can pick up a nic 4TB drive though. Hopefully rocking right next to my 256GB Gen3 x18-m. =)
  • 5 Hide
    mitch074 , February 26, 2010 8:12 AM
    It is compatible with any system (including DOS) - it's just that performance won't be good on systems whose partitioner is unaware that Logical Block Addressing (which works with 512 Kb sectors even on 4K sector drives) don't match the actual drive's layout.

    It also means that if you use a partitioning tool that is sector aware, you can install any system optimally.

    Case in point: you're using a Linux LiveCD to partition your whole system. You create a primary NTFS partition. You create all the other partitions you want, of any kind you prefer.

    Then you start installing Windows Home Server on your created NTFS partition. Done.

    As long as you don't try to use funky NTFS sector sizes (NTFS defaults to 4K cluster size, but can go as low as 512 bytes - this often happens on small FAT32 partitions converted to NTFS), you should be OK.

    In essence:

    - create your partitions on a modern OS (at MS, anything that came out after 2006: Vista, 2008, Seven; for UNICes, any - that includes Linux, OS X, BSD, Solaris)

    - format these partitions with 4K (or multiples of 4K) cluster/inode/sector size. On Windows systems, you can even use Windows 2000, as it also defaulted to 4K sector sizes for NTFS on new partitions. You should forget about FAT32, but even that should work with cluster sizes >= 4K. Cloned partitions should have >= 4K block sizes too.

    - install as usual.
  • 1 Hide
    obarthelemy , February 26, 2010 8:39 AM
    I'm not that sure about the 10% capacity increase in practice: won't any file, even a 1-byte one, now take at least 4kB on disk ?

    Manufacturers get to advertise 10% capacity, users get x% extra waste. It would be nice to look at a typical Win7 system, at compute whether users actually gain or lose HD space.

    PLus, what's the impact on SSDs ?
  • 6 Hide
    dimitrik , February 26, 2010 9:54 AM
    The majority of these new technology drives i.e. GP/LP low energy models and ultra high capacity models, above 1TB, and especially 2TB have such appalingly high fault and failure rates as to make them an insane choice for anyone especially since their main use is data storage. If you're running a RAID 1 array that allows hot swapping and really need massive capacity you might choose to risk it, but for a desktop to user who wants to store their photos, videos, tunes etc, they are extremely high risk.

    Check out the ratings given by users on newegg to see an illustration.

    Drives up to 1TB typically score 80% statisfaction rates (4/5 stars). Drives above 1.5TB are at 30% with up to 50% of people scoring them extremely low (1/2 stars) and citing DOAs, failure after 1-3 months, data loss due to poor firmware or incompatibility with a variety of controllers... Especially telling are the users who order multiple drives for larger systems - they report between 1 in 4 drives to 2 in 4 drives being faulty.

    I have a friend who works at the largest manufacturer and when I asked him about this he basically declined to answer. The companies know their yields are terrible but they have no choice since people want those high capacity drives.

    I would personally love 4x2TB GP drives for my NAS but I will not risk it until 2 more generations of the technology come out.
  • 3 Hide
    amnotanoobie , February 26, 2010 9:56 AM
    obarthelemyI'm not that sure about the 10% capacity increase in practice: won't any file, even a 1-byte one, now take at least 4kB on disk ?Manufacturers get to advertise 10% capacity, users get x% extra waste. It would be nice to look at a typical Win7 system, at compute whether users actually gain or lose HD space.PLus, what's the impact on SSDs ?


    At default, WinXP does format NTFS partitions with a 4k cluster size. So you're not actually losing anything new with 4k physical blocks.
  • 3 Hide
    mitch074 , February 26, 2010 10:54 AM
    @obarthelemy: you should learn to read.

    No, the waste you're talking about is at the file system level - and is already the case in current drives, since file systems aren't impacted by the change.

    As I said in my previous comment, and as is said in the article (but indirectly), performance is lost when there is an alignment mismatch between LBA addressing and physical addressing.

    Up till now, LBA addressing was related to the physical layout: LBA used 512 bytes logical sectors, which the drive's eletronics matched against the platter's physical blocks - which had a 512 bytes payload+spacer+CRC.

    On top of that, were placed file systems - and currently, most file systems use a 4K cluster (FAT) or sector (NTFS) or inode (ext2/3/4) size.

    Meaning that a file system logical block commonly took 8 LBA sectors, which related directly to 8 physical sectors.

    With these new drives, you have a file system block taking 8 LBA sectors, which relate to a single physical sector.

    But that is the best case. What happens if the file system starts at a non multiple of 8 LBA sector? Well, a file system's block will ride on top of 2 material blocks, and the disk will have to read both sectors, and piece together the actual data needed - requiring twice the number of reads.

    SSDs don't work the same way. If you read the article, you'll see that this is a DESIGN FEATURE of hard disk drives; SSDs are NOT hard disk drives, thus they are NOT concerned by this problem. Well, not the same way at the very least.
  • -4 Hide
    nforce4max , February 26, 2010 11:28 AM
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=473kNyO9jUM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBgylx1pBXc&feature=related

    When drives are big. :o  PS those with slim cases need not to apply.

  • 2 Hide
    belardo , February 26, 2010 12:34 PM
    dimitrikThe majority of these new technology drives i.e. GP/LP low energy models and ultra high capacity models, above 1TB, and especially 2TB have such appalingly high fault and failure rates as to make them an insane choice for anyone especially since their main use is data storage.~~ for a desktop to user who wants to store their photos, videos, tunes etc, they are extremely high risk. Check out the ratings given by users on newegg to see an illustration.


    I agree. The loss of 2TB of data would be horrible. But I wonder how many of these 2TB users are just storing lots of porn and movies?

    I am able to fit most of my needs onto 500GB. Store excess data or backups onto 1TB drives. Also, remember last year when Seagate had the problems with their 1.5TB drives failing? But all this high capacity filters down to smaller drives by reducing their platters.

    I remember buying a 160GB drive a few years ago and its half as thin as a normal 3.5" drive. The last 500GB drive I bought for a customer build is also very slim. It shows that its the same tech used in their 1TB drives, just less platters. Eventually all HDs will be like this, where they can fit 2TB of data onto a single platter.

    With more platters, comes more heat and higher chance of failure with the extra heads, etc.

    Most reliable are 1 if not 2 platters total for a drive... but I'm afraid as the density increases, so does the failure. SSDs are still advancing but still a good 3~4 years behind in price/storage ratios.

    BTW: People should check out the noise levels. I've told people that I found Seagates to be pretty much silent, the chart shows that. I built a system with a WD drive last year, I couldn't stand the noise in an otherwise silent system and exchanged it for a Seagate.
  • 0 Hide
    belardo , February 26, 2010 12:45 PM
    nforce4maxhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=473kNyO9jUMhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBg [...] re=relatedWhen drives are big. PS those with slim cases need not to apply.


    Blah... those are still SMALL compared to some IBM server drives that sound like JET engines when powering up, usually taking about 3-5 minutes to reach full speed. There were the size of dishwashers.

    Heres a cool video, shows the insides of the drive working:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gb1cUbC1VHM&feature=related

    Notice, with such huge areas to work with, its not as suspectable to damage as todays drives, but then again it only holds 1/1000th of todays $10 flash drives and weighs about 10lbs more.

    For sick fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWVimPzeIf0&feature=PlayList&p=77A6C53B31892CEA&index=19&playnext=2&playnext_from=PL

    BTW: No youtube videos on those old IBMs... that was back in the days before cheap video hardware and the internet.
  • 0 Hide
    huron , February 26, 2010 1:14 PM
    bgrngodSoooo... any chance these are compatible with WHS systems? I didn't read the entire article but I saw no mention of it on the benchmarks and what I did read.


    Server 2003, which WHS is based on, is similar to XP/2000, so you'd have to run the alignment utility. I wouldn't use it as the OS drive, but I have heard it is OK for the data pool.

    I've thought about using them too, especially when I see them on sale, but always am worried about how well they would work in WHS.
  • -4 Hide
    geofelt , February 26, 2010 1:20 PM
    A nice incremental improvement.
    The 10% increase in track capacity will not translate into 10% more drive capacity. The reason is that drives will still be made in 500gb/1tb/2tb... capacities. Costs will not change much either because 10% is not enough to eliminate a platter.

    What WILL change though is a 10% increase in data transfer rate. That is because 10% more capacity can pass under the R/W heads in the same revolution. That's good.

  • 0 Hide
    thearm , February 26, 2010 2:58 PM
    What if you're using two of these drives in hardware RAID1 in XP. Should the utility be run or is it not necessary?
  • -2 Hide
    Shadow703793 , February 26, 2010 3:43 PM
    Wait a sec, wouldn't 4KB sectors help given the OS data benches done with SSDs are accurate?
  • -2 Hide
    Miharu , February 26, 2010 3:46 PM
    A bit more performance... this doesn't mean much.

    But my question is if I use NTFS 64k cluster, what is the impact on 512k HD clusters or 4k HD clusters ?
    This is the real question they should have answer.
  • -5 Hide
    crlx , February 26, 2010 3:51 PM
    Bad artical!
    To much focus on the extra storage, that might get wasted if you have small files!
    ...and almost not a word on what is the most likely problem, even worse failrate on reading. YES modern disk drives do fail on read! So often that a rebuild of a raid on large disk can be at risk!

    Com'on Tomshardware! This article should have been saying to the industry. BAD concept! BAD idea!
  • -1 Hide
    koehlerd , February 26, 2010 5:50 PM
    Quote:
    Blah... those are still SMALL compared to some IBM server drives that sound like JET engines when powering up, usually taking about 3-5 minutes to reach full speed. There were the size of dishwashers.

    Heres a cool video, shows the insides of the drive working:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gb1 [...] re=related


    That's awesome, I actually have one of those exact same Micropolis drives at home. It still works too! I think it is like 660Mb or something like that.
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , February 26, 2010 7:40 PM
    RequiemsAllureI wouldnt have it as a boot drive (due to its write speed) but as a data drive, it would be quite nice. 7-11% extra capacity for worse write speed, i would take that. seems like i may have found my next storage drive as soon as they offer higher capacities of this.

    Problem is, they are NOT giving you any extra storage capacity, its still a 1, 1.5, or 2TB drive with the same number of platters. If they gave you a 1.1, a 1.65, or a 2.2TB storage capacity, for the same price as the old tech, then it would be worthwhile.

    These drives are just a test vehicle for the new technology, and don't have any real benefit over the previous drives from a consumer standpoint. Its a step in the right direction, but personally I'll hold off for now.
  • -4 Hide
    victomofreality , February 26, 2010 7:40 PM
    I have one of the 1tb greens they reviewed here and it's worked fantastically. The only issue I've had with it so far is the first day the videos I was playing off it would play for about 2sec before the sound would come on but went away by that night so I think it was just the drive getting accustomed to working.
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