Ruggedized Hard Drives Part 1

Question:  A major drive manufacturer announces a new hard drive.  Total capacity is 100 GB.  A PATA version (the old IDE interface) can only deliver 80 GB.  The motor speed is 4200 RPM.  It has only one platter.  The average seek time is 12 msec.   What year is it?

Answer:  Believe it or not, although the capacity and specifications suggest drive technologies that probably go back to early in this decade (for example – I have some 166 GB drives from the year 2000, and some 18 GB SCSI drives from that same year), the year that these new drives are announced is actually 2010.  The drives, from Toshiba, are scheduled to begin shipping in December 2010.

If you’re a user of consumer grade drives – the kind that is probably installed in your desktop computer, you’re probably more familiar with the idea of a drive that is many hundreds of gigabytes – or even a few terabytes — in capacity.  If you’ve been shopping for a new hard disk drive, you’ve probably seen them going to 2 TB or higher.   Even a drive for a notebook or laptop computer is available with capacities of 500 GB, if not higher.

So – why would 100 GB be such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because these drives are special drives.  They’re made for some specific purposes, and the specifications of these drives that I didn’t list make them so well suited for these specialized uses.

There are actually a few different categories of special hard drives:  Ruggedized drives and Enterprise drives.

Just as their name suggests, ruggedized drives are designed for use in extreme environments.  Such environments may include ATM machines, where the drives may be running 24/7/365 and are enclosed in a small box.  The heat generated by the computer inside the ATM can get quite high – and the ATM may be directly exposed to extremes of heat (imagine the ATM sitting in a South facing location, getting full sun in the hottest days of summer), and bone-numbing cold (imagine that same ATM in the depth of winter).

These drives may, instead, wind up on a shop floor, holding the data needed by a computer-controlled milling machine.  The data would probably include every turn of the wheels driving the bits, and the machine might store the programs for hundreds of designs.  This drive, too, would probably be in a compact housing, but would be subject to extreme vibrations – from the spinning of the milling head, to the vibrations generated by the motors that position the head, to the bang-bang-bang of the machine a few feet away that stamps out parts.  In an environment like this, a standard, consumer grade hard drive may not last long before it fails.

Using a single disk in a rugged drive, like the ones that Toshiba just announced, gets around many of the problems associated with drives using multiple platters. In the multi-platter drives, drive heads are positioned between platters (in addition to the head above the top platter and below the bottom platter).  The distance between platters is minimal, and vibration could cause the heads in a multi-platter drive to impact the platters, damaging the heads and/or disk surfaces.

Incorporating more capable shock and vibration protection into these drives helps the drives to withstand these elements.  Adding in the ability to withstand temperature changes and being better sealed so that dust and other particulates don’t get into the drive also help to make these drives more rugged.

The primary goal of most of the drives is not for maximized storage, or even for excellent performance – the goal is to be able to survive in tough environments.  Increased capacities are a nice little extra.

Mark Brownstein is a technology journalist and technology consultant who specializes in explaining and interpreting new technologies, and clarifying how to integrate these new products into current systems. He has been Editor-In-Chief at computer technology and networking publications, has held significant editorial positions at major technology magazines, and is a frequent contributor to various technology magazines. He has written seven books. He is Microsoft Certified, and spends much of his time testing hardware and software products, running his own networks, and learning the best ways to get computer systems running and to keep them running.

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