Bespoke Storage Technologies: The Alphabet Soup Found In Modern Hard Drives And Beyond

It seems like just yesterday (maybe for some of you it was) we were installing Windows 3.1 off floppy drives onto a 256 MB hard drive, but hard drives have since gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated, and there are a lot more options than spinning platters.

The explosion of storage options is the result of addressing a variety of niches of use. The typical torrenter downloads a file, which is written once but read many times. For some people a drive is used as a backup that’s stored elsewhere and left unpowered. For others it is a server frequently reading and writing data like logs or swap files. In all cases it’s physics that sets the limits of what storage media can do; if you choose wisely for your use case you’ll get the bet performance.

The jargon in this realm is daunting: superparamagnetic limit, LMR, PMR, CMR, SMR, HAMR, MAMR, EAMR, XAMR, and QLC to name the most common. Let’s take a look at how we got here, and how the past and present of persistent storage have expanded what the word hard drive actually means and what is found under the hood.

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Hard Disk Drives Have Made Precision Engineering Commonplace

Modern-day hard disk drives (HDDs) hold the interesting juxtaposition of being simultaneously the pinnacle of mass-produced, high-precision mechanical engineering, as well as the most scorned storage technology. Despite being called derogatory names such as ‘spinning rust’, most of these drives manage a lifetime of spinning ultra-smooth magnetic storage platters only nanometers removed from the recording and reading heads whose read arms are twitching around using actuators that manage to position the head precisely above the correct microscopic magnetic trace within milliseconds.

Despite decade after decade of more and more of these magnetic traces being crammed on a single square millimeter of these platters, and the simple read and write heads being replaced every few years by more and more complicated ones, hard drive reliability has gone up. The second quarter report from storage company Backblaze on their HDDs shows that the annual failure rate has gone significantly down compared to last year.

The question is whether this means that HDDs stand to become only more reliable over time, and how upcoming technologies like MAMR and HAMR may affect these metrics over the coming decades.

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A New Spin On A Medical Test

Most of us can say that we have taken an obsolete hard drive out of a computer and felt it was a waste to toss it in the e-waste pile. Some of us have children’s drawings hung on the fridge with actuator magnets, or maybe a vast spreadsheet suspended on a steel filing cabinet. Let us not forget that there is also a high-speed, low-noise motor in there. On some models it is separate from the PCB, so grab an Electronic Speed Controller (ESC), your microcontroller of choice, and make yourself a salvaged HDD centrifuge like [Cave Man] has. His build uses the tray as a chassis, but he modeled and printed a new face in the same style as the original.

On top, he has an OLED screen for displaying the requested speed, measured speed, and runtime. Next to the display is a four-button pad with a customized legend for setting parameters. The video after the break shows the machine running through its paces. This version accommodates the tiny capillary tubes, microhematocrit tubes, for processing raw blood. This test can calculate the packed cell volume, which professionals use to determine things from dehydration to anemia.

There are other builds out there where people have modified an old drive into the kind of centrifuge that accepts larger diameter tubes, but this was a shining example of what is possible. One good turn deserves another, so we recommend a desktop bio-lab companion, or enlist some LEGO Mindstorms to help out.

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HDD-Driven Chime Clock Is Quite Striking

It seems that the more hectic life gets, the harder it is to consciously slow down and enjoy the experience. There’s always another bill to worry about, and a new deadline around the corner. The last thing we need are ultra-precise digital clocks everywhere we look. When it’s time to relax, there’s more than enough room for a passive type of clock that gives the time on time’s terms.

[Scoops]’ beautiful chime-only clock seems perfect for its location — an intimate event space inside an old house in Taiwan. Having only a vague sense of passing time helps us relax responsibly at social events. There’s no need to pull out your phone or glance at your watch when notifications about the passage of time softly permeate the air.

Here’s how it works: a NodeMCU controls four hard drive actuators through a ULN2003. The actuators each have a small extension and a clapper fitted on the end, which strikes the aluminium tubes that make up the chimes. There’s a web interface where [Scoops] can set the chimes to sound as frequently or infrequently as desired, or schedule a quiet period during the overnight hours. In emergencies, the clock can also be muted directly with the push of a button.

Take a little time to check out the short videos after the break, because this thing does a mean Westminster Chimes. But don’t stay too long, because time is running out! You have until Friday, January 24th to enter our Tell Time Contest over on IO.

Time can be relaxing or suffocating, depending on the way you look at it. If it’s visual relaxation you need, watch this bubble clock and float away from reality for a while.

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Blink An LED On The Internet Of Things

Blinking an LED is generally considered the hardware equivalent of the classic “Hello World” project. It’s a quick and simple test to show that you’ve got the basics worked out, and a launching point for bigger and better things. So why should it be any different in this glorious new Internet of Things era?

The “WiFi HDD LED” created by [Limbo] is essentially just that, a status LED that can be triggered remotely thanks to the WiFi capability of the ever-popular ESP8266. Don’t think there’s much use for a wireless LED that blinks when your computer’s hard drive is thrashing around? Maybe not, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a good way to get your feet wet in the world of ESP hacking.

On the hardware side, this is exactly what you’d expect: an LED hanging off the digital pin of an ESP8266 module. If you go with the bare ESP-01 like [Limbo], things are somewhat more complex due to the need for a voltage regulator, but if you’re using one of the more common ESP development boards then there’s nothing else you need to add. Really, as a proof of concept you could even use the built-in LED on those boards.

As you might imagine, this project is more about the software than the hardware. The code on both sides of the equation has been released as open source for your hacking pleasure, and is more capable than you’d probably expect. The LED is actually an extension of a system activity monitor that [Limbo] had previously developed and includes a binding function to make sure you’re talking to the right blinking ESP. It’s probably overkill for many purposes, but it’s a good example of how to do more robust UDP connections than we’re used to seeing.

This project is one of many that prove there’s more than one way to accomplish a particular goal, and that there’s something to be learned from even the most eccentric of hacks.

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ARM-Based NAS Is A Low Cost, Low Power Beauty

A NAS is always a handy addition to a home network, but they can be a little pricey. [Blake Burkhart] decided to create his own, prioritising budget and low power considerations, with a secondary objective to produce some router and IoT functionality on the side.

A Banana Pi R2 was a good choice to meet these requirements, being a router-based development board that also sports dual SATA connectors and gigabit Ethernet. [Blake] had some retrospective regrets about the performance of this particular SBC, but it does just fine when functioning purely as a NAS.

The enclosure for the device is a three bay hot-swap HDD module, with one of the bays gutted and used for the Banana Pi. It’s a simple idea, elegantly executed, which looks great. To access the ports of the Banana Pi, a custom acrylic side panel was laser cut, which also allowed LEDs to shine through – obligatory for any DIY server/computer build. When mounting this panel to the existing enclosure, [Blake] was reluctant to take his chances tapping the brittle acrylic, instead opting to melt the threads into the plastic with a pre-torched screw. We find that tapping acrylic is usually okay if you take it slow, but heat-tapping does sound fun.

The 12 V fan that came built into the hot-swap enclosure was too loud and awkwardly came in a non-standard size with a non-standard connector. What’s more, a buzzer alarm was triggered any time the fan was disconnected and 0 RPM was detected. [Blake]’s solution was to rewire the power pin of the connector to a 5 V rail; he found that running the fan at 5 V led to much quieter performance whilst keeping the HDDs sufficiently cool.

We find that when it comes to DIY network gear and routers, there are two approaches. Either create your own bespoke solution that perfectly fits your needs, like this perfect home router, or work around your current gear and build some tech to automatically reboot it for you.

 

Scrapped Motors Don’t Care About Direction

Spinners built into games of chance like roulette or tabletop board games stop on a random number after being given a good spin. There is no trick, but they eventually rest because of friction, no matter how hard your siblings wind up for a game-winning turn. What if the spinning continued forever and there was no programming because there was no controller? [Ludic Science] shows us his method of making a perpetual spinner with nothing fancier than a scrapped hard disk drive motor and a transformer. His video can also be seen below the break.

Fair warning: this involves mains power. The brushless motor inside a hard disk drive relies on three-phase current of varying frequencies, but the power coming off a single transformer is going to be single-phase AC at fifty or sixty Hz. This simplifies things considerably, but we lose the self-starting ability of the motor and direction control, but we call those features in our perpetual spinner. With two missing phases, our brushless motor limps along in whatever direction we initiate, but the circuit couldn’t be much more straightforward.

This is just the latest skill on a scrapped HDD motor’s résumé (CV). They will run with a 9V battery, or work backwards and become an encoder. If you want to use it more like the manufacturer’s intent, consider this controller.

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