When decent, somewhat affordable, client focused solid state drives first came on the scene in 2008 the technology was magical. I called the original X25-M the best upgrade you could do for your system (admittedly I threw in the caveat that I’d like to see > 100GB and at a better price than $600). Although NAND and SSD pricing have both matured handsomely over time, there’s still the fact that mechanical storage is an order of magnitude cheaper.

The solution I’ve always advocated was a manual combination of SSD and HDD technologies. Buy a big enough SSD to house your OS, applications and maybe even a game or two, and put everything else on a RAID-1 array of hard drives. This approach works quite well in a desktop, but you have to be ok with manually managing where your files go.

I was always curious about how OEMs would handle this problem, since educating the masses on having to only put large, infrequently used files on one drive with everything else on another didn’t seem like a good idea. With its 6-series chipsets Intel introduced its Smart Response Technology, along with a special 20GB SLC SSD designed to act as a cache for a single hard drive or a bunch in an array.

Since then we’ve seen other SSD caching solutions come forward that didn’t have Intel’s chipset requirements. However most of these solutions were paired with really cheap, really small and really bad mSATA SSDs. More recently, OEMs have been partnering with SSD caching vendors to barely meet the minimum requirements for Ultrabook certification. In general, the experience is pretty bad.

Hard drive makers are working on the same problem, but are trying to fix it by adding a (very) small amount of NAND onto their mechanical drives. Once again this usually results in a faster hard drive experience, rather than an approximation of the SSD experience.

Typically this is the way to deal with hiding latency the lower you get in the memory hierarchy. Toss a small amount of faster memory between two levels and call it a day. Unlike adding a level 3 cache to a CPU however, NAND storage devices already exist in sizes large enough to house all of your data. It’s the equivalent of having to stick with an 8MB L3 cache when for a few hundred dollars more you could have 16GB. Once you’ve tasted the latter, the former seems like a pointless compromise.

Apple was among the first OEMs to realize the futility of the tradeoff. All of its mainstream mobile devices are NAND-only (iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air). More recently, Apple started migrating even its professional notebooks over to an SSD-only setup (MacBook Pro with Retina Display). Apple does have the luxury of not competing at lower price points for its Macs, which definitely makes dropping hard drives an easier thing to accomplish. Even so, out of the 6 distinct Macs that Apple ships today (MBA, rMBP, MBP, Mac mini, iMac and Mac Pro), only two of them ship without any hard drive option by default. The rest come with good old fashioned mechanical storage.

Moving something like the iMac to a solid state configuration is a bit tougher to pull off. While notebook users (especially anyone using an ultraportable) are already used to not having multiple terabytes of storage at their disposal, someone replacing a desktop isn’t necessarily well suited for the same.

Apple’s solution to the problem is, at a high level, no different than all of the PC OEMs who have tried hybrid SSD/HDD solutions in the past. The difference is in the size of the SSD component of the solution, and the software layer.

Meet Fusion Drive
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  • Death666Angel - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    2 of your 3 points are very correct. But they do use SLC which is not the cheap stuff. Reply
  • name99 - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    If they do use decent flash, then why don't they cache writes?

    I always assumed it was because their flash (like USB thumb flash) was so crappy that it was slower for random writes than the HD was.
    Reply
  • kyuu - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - link

    Because there's a lot more to it than just using the right NAND. Also, for the 2nd-gen Momentus XT they were going to release a firmware update that would enable write caching. I'm not sure if that ever happened, haven't followed up on it recently. Reply
  • kyuu - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - link

    That's because the MacBook/MacOS sucks. Not the Momentus XT's fault.

    Been using a Momentus XT in a Windows machine for a long time, had no problems with it being "uneven".

    Also, they sure as hell don't use cheap flash "used in USB thumb drives".
    Reply
  • ShieTar - Saturday, January 19, 2013 - link

    How would the HDD know what is a file? The OS will just command a drive to write a given data block to Sector X.

    The drive may treat X as a logical address, and reorder data internally, but it has no clue if it is writing a complete file or parts of it, or just writing zeros as ordered by some secure erase software.
    Reply
  • Subyman - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Any word on how much the migration process increases read/write quantity over a manually managed setup? As for ssd life being longer than hdd life, if we take into account that almost all writes will hit the ssd first and then some will transfer to the hdd this means the hdd is accessed less often. This could level the mean read/write to failure rate to make the hdd even with the ssd, unless migration has an effect that I'm not considering. Reply
  • dimmer - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Did you enable TRIM or not? Reply
  • name99 - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    It's a Mac for gods sake. It comes configured correctly (yes, with TRIM enabled) out the box. Reply
  • alanh - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    For me, the biggest problem is the added difficulty of doing an upgrade or replacement of storage if it starts getting full or goes bad. From what I've read, the only option is to do a full backup, replace one of the disks, and then do a full restore. I have an '11 MBP with SSD and the DVD replaced with a large HD, so I could, in theory move to a Fusion drive, but it just seems like a risky and annoying proposition. Reply
  • Constructor - Sunday, February 03, 2013 - link

    That is an utter non-issue on a Mac.

    Simply make one last Time Machine backup before the drive switch, then restore from Time Machine afterwards.

    Done.

    That's even the process when switching to a completely new Mac – in my case I once even switched machines, architectures and OS versions all in one go, from a PowerMac G5 running Leopard to an Intel iMac under Snow Leopard. Completely painless and everything was still there exactly where and as it was on the old machine, down to the last application preference and to the last document.

    You should have an up-to-date Time Machine backup at all times anyway, not least because it is so incredibly easy to maintain.

    One of the huge advantages of Fusion Drive is that I will be able to build in an additional SSD into my Late 2009 iMac, fuse it with the regular HD and then restore the Time Machine backup to the fused drives exactly and with zero changes to the directory structure, reconnecting the new copy to the Time Machine history so that every directory will retain its full backup history right back to 2008 while still auto-optimizing performance.

    That is as close to perfect as it gets.

    That they initially charge a few bucks (or Euro) for the added speed, capacity and convenience is perfectly reasonable in my view (I'll get it for free beyond the third-party SSD and some time spent on modifying it myself).
    Reply

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