Valiant but doomed
The ZFS discussion thread had an interesting comment from Sun’s Jeff Bonwick, architect of ZFS, on storage device failure modes. How do you know a disk or a tape has failed?

You don’t. You wait, while the milliseconds stretch into seconds and maybe even minutes. Jeff states the problem – and Sun’s solution – this way:

. . . we’re trying to provide increasingly optimal behavior given a collection of devices whose failure modes are largely ill-defined. (Is the disk dead or just slow? Gone or just temporarily disconnected? Does this burst of bad sectors indicate catastrophic failure, or just localized media errors?) . . . there’s a lot of work underway to model the physical topology of the hardware, gather telemetry from the devices, the enclosures, the environmental sensors etc, so that we can generate an accurate FMA [Fault Management Architecture] fault diagnosis and then tell ZFS to take appropriate action.

With all due respect to Jeff, that solution seems iffy: how will you ever keep up with all the devices and firmware levels needed to make that work?

A community of prima donnas
There are lots of messy failure modes in computer systems. The literature around the Byzantine Generals Problem (Wikipedia – for a rigorous treatment download The Byzantine Generals Problem by L. Lamport tackles the problem of the malicious server in a community of network servers. That is a hard problem.

Knowing whether a storage device is alive, dead or only sleeping shouldn’t be so hard. They have powerful 32-bit processors – more powerful than a VAX 780 – and lots of statistics on what the drive is doing.

It seems like a disk could give a modulated heartbeat signal to drivers – “ready” “reboot” “caught in retry hell” “dead” – to decrease uncertainty.

The StorageMojo take
Drive vendors may think that non-standards for drive condition reporting are a form of lock-in, but that misses the bigger picture: the quality and timeliness of condition reports – even with a standard format – would be a competitive differentiator.

At the margin it would help slow the move to commodity-based cluster storage by enabling array vendors to improve their error handling and perceived reliability. It would also help disks versus flash SSDs, whose perceived reliability is partly due to the gap between user-judged drive “failures” and vendor “no trouble found” test results.

Storage systems all know how to deal with disk failures – they have to. So drive vendors, how about getting together to help make knowing a drive’s status a lot easier? Hey, IDEMA, make yourself useful!

Courteous comments welcome, of course.