News analysis

Short takes. Yesterday was a newsworthy day in technology, and I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of misinformation about it eminating from both coasts, so we might as well set the record straight.
Poor quality control drives IBM from the hard drive business! Yeah, whatever. IBM makes one questionable model (and many GXP failures sounded more like power supply failures than hard drive failures), and suddenly everything they’ve ever made is crap. Guess what? Seven years ago you couldn’t give me a Seagate drive, because the drives they were making back then were so slow and unreliable. Maxtors were worse–and my boss at the time, who has a very long memory, nearly disciplined me a couple of years ago for specifying a Maxtor drive in an upgrade. But he’s a reasonable man and saw that the drive held up and performed well. Western Digital has been so hit and miss I still don’t want to buy any of their drives. Though their drives started to look better after they licensed some technology from… Old Big Black and Blue.

And the truth about GXPs: Regardless of how true the quality control allegations are, the drives themselves are the most innovative and advanced IDE devices ever commercially marketed. The platters are made using different materials and processes than conventional discs, which was supposed to make them more reliable. Expect that technology to come of age in a generation or two. The drives even include SCSI-like command queueing (the newest version of Linux’s hdparm allows you to turn this feature on; I have no idea if Windows switches it on by default). The successor to the 60GXP is going to be worth a second and a third look.

Wanna know what’s really going on? Hard drives aren’t very profitable. IBM has a history of spinning off questionable divisions to see if they can survive as smaller, more independent entities. The most famous recent example of this is Lexmark. That’s what’s going on here. IBM and Hitachi spin off and merge their storage divisions, and each company takes a stake in it. If the company mops up the floor with the competition, IBM and Hitachi make lots of money. If the company continues to bleed cash, IBM and Hitachi get nice tax write-offs. Either way, the shareholders are happy.

A number of years ago, IBM was a large producer of memory chips as well. In fact, you can open up a Mac manufactured in the mid-1990s, and chances are you’ll find an IBM-manufactured PowerPC CPU, one or more IBM-manufactured DIMMs, and an IBM SCSI hard drive. Making memory had its ups and downs, and during one of the many downturns in the 90s, IBM got out of the business. There was a time when Intel and AMD were in that business too (I have some old AMD DRAM chips on an expansion card somewhere, and I’ve seen Intel DRAMs but I don’t know if I’ve ever owned any).

This news is a little bit surprising, but hardly shocking. IBM’s making tons of money selling software and services, they’re not making money selling hard drives, and they’ve got a new CEO and nervous investors. This is a way for them to hedge their bets.

And you can expect them to possibly start getting more aggressive about marketing their technologies to other drive manufacturers as well now. Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital, Fujitsu and Samsung have just changed from competitors into potential customers. Expect disk performance to increase and price to continue to decrease as a result.

How to gauge hard drive reliability. This isn’t exactly news but it seems very relevant. Professional writers don’t see a lot of drives. They can recommend based on their own experience, but their recent experience is going to be limited to a few dozen drives. Message boards are very hit and miss. You have no way of knowing whether it’s a book author hiding behind that handle or a clueless 12-year-old kid. Find an experienced technician who’s still practicing as a technician (I’m not a very good example; at this stage of my career I no longer deal with large numbers of desktop systems–I deal with a handful of servers and my own desktop machine and that’s it) and ask what hard drives they’ve seen fail. When I was doing desktop support regularly, I could tell you almost the exact number of drives I’d seen fail in the past year, and I could tell you the brands. I’d prefer to talk to someone who fixes computers for a large company rather than a computer store tech (since his employer is in the business of selling things, he’s under pressure to recommend what’s in stock), but I’ll still trust a computer store tech over some anonymous user on Usenet or a message board, as well as over a published author. Myself included.

AMD withdraws from the consumer market! AMD mentioned in a conference call yesterday that it plans to discontinue the Duron processor line this year. It makes sense. Fab 25 in Austin is being re-tooled to make flash memory, leaving the Duron without a home. But beyond that, AMD’s new 64-bit Hammer chip is going to hit the market later this year. So they can sell a slightly crippled K7 core as their low-end chip, or they can make their high-end K7 core into the low-end chip and sell the Hammer as a high-end chip. This strategy makes more sense. Clock for clock, the Athlon is still a better chip than the P4. Hammer scales better and performs better. So AMD can pit the Athlon against the Celeron and give P4 performance at a Celeron price, and the Hammer against the P4, which will give P4 clock rates and deliver better performance for 32-bit apps, along with a 64-bit future. There’s not much room in that strategy for the Duron. AMD would rather cede the $35 CPU business to VIA.

Look for the Hammer to gain widespread use in the Linux server market, especially among smaller companies. The Athlon already has an audience there (in spite of some pundits calling AMD-based systems “toys,” you see far more ads for AMD-based servers in Linux Journal than you see for Intel boxes), but the Hammer will become the poor man’s Alpha.

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