Using simple MTBF to determine reliability to Finance

The other day, a prospect was requesting quotations after quotations from a friend of mine to make so-called “apple-to-apple” comparison with another storage vendor. But it was difficult to have that sort of comparisons because one guy would propose SAS, and the other SATA and so on. I was roped in by my friend to help. So in the end I asked this prospect, which 3 of these criteria matters to him most – Performance, Capacity or Reliability.

He gave me an answer and the reliability criteria was leading his requirement. Then he asked me if I could help determine in a “quick-and-dirty manner” by using MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) of the disks to convince his finance about the question of reliability.

Well, most HDD vendors published their MTBF as a measuring stick to determine the reliability of their manufactured disks. MTBF is by no means accurate but it is useful to define HDD reliability in a crude manner. If you have seen the components that goes into a HDD, you would be amazed that the HDD components go through a tremendously stressed environment. The Read/Write head operating at a flight height (head gap)  between the platters thinner than a human hair and the servo-controlled technology maintains the constant, never-lagging 7200/10,000/15,000 RPM days-after-days, months-after-months, years-after-years. And it yet, we seem to take the HDD for granted, rarely thinking how much technology goes into it on a nanoscale. That’s technology at its best – bringing something so complex to make it so simple for all of us.

I found that the Seagate Constellation.2 Enterprise-class 3TB 7200 RPM disk MTBF is 1.2 million hours while the Seagate Cheetah 600GB 10,000 RPM disk MTBF is 1.5 million hours. So, the Cheetah is about 30% more reliable than the Constellation.2, right?

Wrong! There are other factors involved. In order to achieve 3TB usable, a RAID 1 (average write performance, very good read performance) would require 2 units of 3TB 7200 RPM disks. On the other hand, using a 10, 000 RPM disks, with the largest shipping capacity of 600GB, you would need 10 units of such HDDs. RAID-DP (this is NetApp by the way) would give average write performance (better than RAID 1 in some cases) and very good read performance (for sequential access).

So, I broke down the above 2 examples to this prospect (to achieve 3TB usable)

  1. Seagate Constellation.2 3TB 7200 RPM HDD MTBF is 1.2 million hours x 2 units
  2. Seagate Cheetah 600GB 10,000 RPM HDD MTBF is 1.5 million hours x 10 units

By using a simple calculation of

    RF (Reliability Factor) = MTBF/#HDDs

the prospect will be able to determine which of the 2 HDD types above could be more reliable.

In case #1, RF is 600,000 hours and in case #2, the RF is 125,000 hours. Suddenly you can see that the Constellation.2 HDDs which has a lower MTBF has a higher RF compared to the Cheetah HDDs. Quick and simple, isn’t it?

Note that I did not use the SAS versus SATA technology into the mixture because they don’t matter. SAS and SATA are merely data channels that drives data in and out of the spinning HDDs. So, folks, don’t be fooled that a SAS drive is more reliable than a SATA drive. Sometimes, they are just the same old spinning HDDs. In fact, the mentioned Seagate Constellation.2 HDD (3TB, 7200 RPM) has both SAS and SATA interface.

Of course, this is just one factor in the whole Reliability universe. Other factors such as RAID-level, checksum, CRC, single or dual-controller also determines the reliability of the entire storage array.

In conclusion, we all know that the MTBF alone does not determine the reliability of the solution the prospect is about to purchase. But this is one way you can use to help the finance people to get the idea of reliability.