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Storage Trends

In considering storage trends for the consumer side I’m looking at the current prices from MSY (where I usually buy computer parts). I know that other stores will have slightly different prices but they should be very similar as they all have low margins and wholesale prices are the main factor.

Small Hard Drives Aren’t Viable

The cheapest hard drive that MSY sells is $68 for 500G of storage. The cheapest SSD is $49 for 120G and the second cheapest is $59 for 240G. SSD is cheaper at the low end and significantly faster. If someone needed about 500G of storage there’s a 480G SSD for $97 which costs $29 more than a hard drive. With a modern PC if you have no hard drives you will notice that it’s quieter. For anyone who’s buying a new PC spending an extra $29 is definitely worthwhile for the performance, low power use, and silence.

The cheapest 1TB disk is $69 and the cheapest 1TB SSD is $159. Saving $90 on the cost of a new PC probably isn’t worth while.

For 2TB of storage the cheapest options are Samsung NVMe for $339, Crucial SSD for $335, or a hard drive for $95. Some people would choose to save $244 by getting a hard drive instead of NVMe, but if you are getting a whole system then allocating $244 to NVMe instead of a faster CPU would probably give more benefits overall.

Computer stores typically have small margins and computer parts tend to quickly either become cheaper or be obsoleted by better parts. So stores don’t want to stock parts unless they will sell quickly. Disks smaller than 2TB probably aren’t going to be profitable for stores for very long. The trend of SSD and NVMe becoming cheaper is going to make 2TB disks non-viable in the near future.

NVMe vs SSD

M.2 NVMe devices are at comparable prices to SATA SSDs. For some combinations of quality and capacity NVMe is about 50% more expensive and for some it’s slightly cheaper (EG Intel 1TB NVMe being cheaper than Samsung EVO 1TB SSD). Last time I checked about half the motherboards on sale had a single M.2 socket so for a new workstation that doesn’t need more than 2TB of storage (the largest NVMe that MSY sells) it wouldn’t make sense to use anything other than NVMe.

The benefit of NVMe is NOT throughput (even though NVMe devices can often sustain over 4GB/s), it’s low latency. Workstations can’t properly take advantage of this because RAM is so cheap ($198 for 32G of DDR4) that compiles etc mostly come from cache and because most filesystem writes on workstations aren’t synchronous. For servers a large portion of writes are synchronous, for example a mail server can’t acknowledge receiving mail until it knows that it’s really on disk, so there’s a lot of small writes that block server processes and the low latency of NVMe really improves performance. If you are doing a big compile on a workstation (the most common workstation task that uses a lot of disk IO) then the writes aren’t synchronised to disk and if the system crashes you will just do all the compilation again. While NVMe doesn’t give a lot of benefit over SSD for workstation use (I’ve uses laptops with SSD and NVMe and not noticed a great difference) of course I still want better performance. ;)

Last time I checked I couldn’t easily buy a PCIe card that supported 2*NVMe cards, I’m sure they are available somewhere but it would take longer to get and probably cost significantly more than twice as much. That means a RAID-1 of NVMe takes 2 PCIe slots if you don’t have an M.2 socket on the motherboard. This was OK when I installed 2*NVMe devices on a server that had 18 disks and lots of spare PCIe slots. But for some systems PCIe slots are an issue.

My home server has all PCIe slots used by a video card and Ethernet cards and the BIOS probably won’t support booting from NVMe. It’s a Dell server so I can’t just replace the motherboard with one that has more PCIe slots and M.2 on the motherboard. As it’s running nicely and doesn’t need replacing any time soon I won’t be using NVMe for home server stuff.

Small Servers

Most servers that I am responsible for have less than 2TB of storage. For my clients I now only recommend SSD storage for small servers and am recommending SSD for replacing any failed disks.

My home server has 2*500G SSDs in a BTRFS RAID-1 for the root filesystem, and 3*4TB disks in a BTRFS RAID-1 for storing big files. I bought the SSDs when 500G SSDs were about $250 each and bought 2*4TB disks when they were about $350 each. Currently that server has about 3.3TB of space used and I could probably get it down to about 2.5TB if I deleted things I don’t really need. If I was getting storage for that server now I’d use 2*2TB SSDs and 3*1TB hard drives for the stuff that doesn’t fit on SSDs (I have some spare 1TB disks that came with servers). If I didn’t have spare hard drives I’d get 3*2TB SSDs for that sort of server which would give 3TB of BTRFS RAID-1 storage.

Last time I checked Dell servers had a card for supporting M.2 as an optional extra so Dells probably won’t boot from NVMe without extra expense.

Ars Technica has an informative article about WD selling SMR disks as “NAS” disks [1]. The Shingled Magnetic Recording technology allows greater storage density on a platter which leads to either larger capacity or cheaper disks but at the cost of lower write performance and apparently extremely bad latency in some situations. NAS disks are supposed to be low latency as the expectation is that they will be used in a RAID array and kicked out of the array if they have problems. There are reports of ZFS kicking SMR disks from RAID sets. I think this will end the use of hard drives for small servers. For a server you don’t want to deal with this sort of thing, by definition when a server goes down multiple people will stop work (small server implies no clustering). Spending extra to get SSDs just to avoid the risk of unexpected SMR would be a good plan.

Medium Servers

The largest SSD and NVMe devices that are readily available are 2TB but 10TB disks are commodity items, there are reports of 20TB hard drives being available but I can’t find anyone in Australia selling them.

If you need to store dozens or hundreds of terabytes than hard drives have to be part of the mix at this time. There’s no technical reason why SSDs larger than 10TB can’t be made (the 2.5″ SATA form factor has more than 5* the volume of a 2TB M.2 card) and it’s likely that someone sells them outside the channels I buy from, but probably at a price higher than what my clients are willing to pay. If you want 100TB of affordable storage then a mid range server like the Dell PowerEdge T640 which can have up to 18*3.5″ disks is good. One of my clients has a PowerEdge T630 with 18*3.5″ disks in the 8TB-10TB range (we replace failed disks with the largest new commodity disks available, it used to have 6TB disks). ZFS version 0.8 introduced a “Special VDEV Class” which stores metadata and possibly small data blocks on faster media. So you could have some RAID-Z groups on hard drives for large storage and the metadata on a RAID-1 on NVMe for fast performance. For medium size arrays on hard drives having a “find /” operation take hours is not uncommon, for large arrays having it take days isn’t that uncommon. So far it seems that ZFS is the only filesystem to have taken the obvious step of storing metadata on SSD/NVMe while bulk data is on cheap large disks.

One problem with large arrays is that the vibration of disks can affect the performance and reliability of nearby disks. The ZFS server I run with 18 disks was originally setup with disks from smaller servers that never had ZFS checksum errors, but when disks from 2 small servers were put in one medium size server they started getting checksum errors presumably due to vibration. This alone is a sufficient reason for paying a premium for SSD storage.

Currently the cost of 2TB of SSD or NVMe is between the prices of 6TB and 8TB hard drives, and the ratio of price/capacity for SSD and NVMe is improving dramatically while the increase in hard drive capacity is slow. 4TB SSDs are available for $895 compared to a 10TB hard drive for $549, so it’s 4* more expensive on a price per TB. This is probably good for Windows systems, but for Linux systems where ZFS and “special VDEVs” is an option it’s probably not worth considering. Most Linux user cases where 4TB SSDs would work well would be better served by smaller NVMe and 10TB disks running ZFS. I don’t think that 4TB SSDs are at all popular at the moment (MSY doesn’t stock them), but prices will come down and they will become common soon enough. Probably by the end of the year SSDs will halve in price and no hard drives less than 4TB will be viable.

For rack mounted servers 2.5″ disks have been popular for a long time. It’s common for vendors to offer 2 versions of a rack mount server for 2.5″ and 3.5″ disks where the 2.5″ version takes twice as many disks. If the issue is total storage in a server 4TB SSDs can give the same capacity as 8TB HDDs.

SMR vs Regular Hard Drives

Rumour has it that you can buy 20TB SMR disks, I haven’t been able to find a reference to anyone who’s selling them in Australia (please comment if you know who sells them and especially if you know the price). I expect that the ZFS developers will soon develop a work-around to solve the problems with SMR disks. Then arrays of 20TB SMR disks with NVMe for “special VDEVs” will be an interesting possibility for storage. I expect that SMR disks will be the majority of the hard drive market by 2023 – if hard drives are still on the market. SSDs will be large enough and cheap enough that only SMR disks will offer enough capacity to be worth using.

I think that it is a possibility that hard drives won’t be manufactured in a few years. The volume of a 3.5″ disk is significantly greater than that of 10 M.2 devices so current technology obviously allows 20TB of NVMe or SSD storage in the space of a 3.5″ disk. If the price of 16TB NVMe and SSD devices comes down enough (to perhaps 3* the price of a 20TB hard drive) almost no-one would want the hard drive and it wouldn’t be viable to manufacture them.

It’s not impossible that in a few years time 3D XPoint and similar fast NVM technologies occupy the first level of storage (the ZFS “special VDEV”, OS swap device, log device for database servers, etc) and NVMe occupies the level for bulk storage with no space left in the market for spinning media.

Computer Cases

For servers I expect that models supporting 3.5″ storage devices will disappear. A 1RU server with 8*2.5″ storage devices or a 2RU server with 16*2.5″ storage devices will probably be of use to more people than a 1RU server with 4*3.5″ or a 2RU server with 8*3.5″.

My first IBM PC compatible system had a 5.25″ hard drive, a 5.25″ floppy drive, and a 3.5″ floppy drive in 1988. My current PC is almost a similar size and has a DVD drive (that I almost never use) 5 other 5.25″ drive bays that have never been used, and 5*3.5″ drive bays that I have never used (I have only used 2.5″ SSDs). It would make more sense to have PC cases designed around 2.5″ and maybe 3.5″ drives with no more than one 5.25″ drive bay.

The Intel NUC SFF PCs are going in the right direction. Many of them only have a single storage device but some of them have 2*M.2 sockets allowing RAID-1 of NVMe and some of them support ECC RAM so they could be used as small servers.

A USB DVD drive costs $36, it doesn’t make sense to have every PC designed around the size of an internal DVD drive that will probably only be used to install the OS when a $36 USB DVD drive can be used for every PC you own.

The only reason I don’t have a NUC for my personal workstation is that I get my workstations from e-waste. If I was going to pay for a PC then a NUC is the sort of thing I’d pay to have on my desk.

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