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IBM acts to quell hard-drive concerns

Though Big Blue says the issue has been overblown, it is changing the way it bills a new hard-disk drive after fears arise that IBM wouldn't stand by warranties.

IBM is changing the way it bills a new desktop hard-disk drive after buyers feared the company wouldn't stand by the warranties on drives that were overused.

The high-speed 120GXP drives, which Big Blue began shipping late last year, are described in IBM documentation as having "recommended power-on hours" of 333 per month--about 11 hours a day.

The figure triggered unease and scorn among some at discussion groups, such as those at StorageReview.com. Some people expressed concern that warranties could be voided if they used their drive for longer periods.

"Reliability must be considered paramount...Consumers know that a fast hard-disk drive is useless if they cannot trust and rely on it to reliably store data," one person said on the message board.

IBM, which for years has pioneered hard drive technology, said the issue is being blown out of proportion. "We still stand behind our three-year warranty if people want to use it two hours a day or 24 hours a day," spokeswoman Kim Nguyen said.

The company included the figure on the specification list because the drive's high performance meant some customers were using it in more intense server environments, where computers typically stay on around-the-clock, and IBM wanted people to be aware what the drive was designed for, Nguyen said. However, she added, "We don't have any problem with people running it in a low-end server environment."

IBM will change the drive specifications as a result of the situation. "It has caused so much confusion that we are removing that data from our spec sheet," Nguyen said.

IDC analyst Dave Reinsel wasn't alarmed by the 333-hour measurement. Desktop drive reliability is typically measured with the assumption that the drive is on 60 percent of the time--somewhat higher than 46 percent of the time that 333 hours a month would mean. On laptops, the standard duty is 40 percent, and on servers, which usually use higher-end SCSI (small computer system interface) drives, it is 100 percent.

The debate about the 120GXP raises an interesting issue, however: the use of lower-end drives in servers. Higher-end servers usually use faster and more robust SCSI drives, whereas desktop machines use less-expensive ATA drives.

With lower-end network-attached storage systems proliferating from companies such as Quantum, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, IBM and others, "You run the risk of placing a drive in an environment it was never designed for," Reinsel said.

It is possible that ATA drives will fork into two different versions, some for desktop computers and some for lower-end servers, Reinsel said. That could happen after the arrival of the faster Serial ATA version of ATA. However, the SCSI camp is working to ensure its technology stays ahead through an initiative called Serial Attached SCSI.

The IBM drive reliability issue was exacerbated by problems with an earlier drive, the 75GXP, which was the subject of a class-action lawsuit brought against IBM in October alleging reliability problems.

"We did have some failures with it," Nguyen acknowledged, saying IBM changed its manufacturing process to improve the product.

Part of the problem might have stemmed from the fact that the 75GXP was very popular, Reinsel said. Many drives were shipped, and therefore a given failure rate would mean a larger actual number of failed drives, he said.

IBM's drives historically have commanded a price premium based on the company's reputation, and Big Blue recognizes the importance of making sure its drives are top-notch.

"That people think our products are reliable is a very important thing for us," Nguyen said. "We'll try to do everything we can to change the opinion (of) the people who feel negatively about us."