As Disk Drive capacity gets larger (and larger), the resilient Filesystem matters

I just got home from the wonderful iXsystems™ Sales Summit in Knoxville, Tennessee. The key highlight was to christian the opening of iXsystems™ Maryville facility, the key operations center that will house iX engineering, support and part of marketing as well. News of this can be found here.

iX datacenter in the new Maryville facility

Western Digital® has always been a big advocate of iX, and at the Summit, they shared their hard disk drives HDD, solid state drives SSD, and other storage platforms roadmaps. I felt like a kid a candy store because I love all these excitements in the disk drive industry. Who says HDDs are going to be usurped by SSDs?

Several other disk drive manufacturers, including Western Digital®, have announced larger capacity drives. Here are some news of each vendor in recent months

Other than the AFR (annualized failure rates) numbers published by Backblaze every quarter, the Capacity factor has always been a measurement of high interest in the storage industry.

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3TB Seagate – a performance sloth

I can’t get home. I am stuck here at the coffee shop waiting out the traffic jam after the heavily downpour an hour ago.

It has been an interesting week for me, which began last week when we were testing the new Seagate 3TB Constellation ES.2 hard disk drives. It doesn’t matter if it was SAS or SATA because the disks were 7,200 RPM, and basically built the same. SAS or SATA is merely the conduit to the disks and we were out there maneuvering the issue at hand.

Here’s an account of  testing done by my team. My team has been testing the drives meticulously, using every trick in the book to milk performance from the Seagate drives. In the end, it wasn’t the performance we got but more like duds from Seagate where these type of drives are concerned.

How did the tests go?

We were using a Unix operating system to test the sequential writes on different partitions of the disks, each with a sizable GB per partition. In one test, we used 100GB per partition. With each partition, we were testing the outer cylinders to the inner cylinders, and as the storage gurus will tell you, the outer rings runs at a faster speed than the inner rings.

We thought it could be the file system we were using, so we switched the sequential writes to raw disks. We tweaked the OS parameters and tried various combinations of block sizes and so on. And what discovered was a big surprise.

The throughput we got from the sequential writes were horrible, started out with MB/sec lower almost 25% lower than a 2TB Western Digital RE4 disk, and as it went on, the throughput in the inner rings went down to single digit MB/sec. According to reliable sources, the slowest published figures by Seagate were in the high 60’s for MB/sec but what we got were close to 20+MB/sec. The Western Digital RE4 was giving out consistent throughput numbers throughout the test. We couldn’t believe it!

We scoured the forums looking for similar issues, but we did not find much about this.This could be a firmware bug. We are in the midst of opening an escalation channel to Seagate to seek explanation. I would like to share what we have discovered and the issue can be easily reproduced. For customers who have purchased storage arrays with 2 or 3TB Seagate Constellation ES/2 drives, please take note. We were disappointed with the disks but thanks to my team for their diligent approach that resulted in this discovery.

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.