Western Digital originally launched their Red lineup of hard disk drives for network-attached storage devices back in 2012. The product stack later expanded to service professional NAS units with the Red Pro. These drives have traditionally offered very predictable performance characteristics, thanks to the use of conventional magnetic recording (CMR). More recently, with the advent of shingled magnetic recording (SMR), WD began offering drive-managed versions in the direct-attached storage (DAS) space for consumers, and host-managed versions for datacenters.

Towards the middle of 2019, WD silently introduced WD Red hard drives (2-6TB capacities) based on drive-managed SMR. There was no fanfare or press-release, and the appearance of the drives in the market was not noticed by the tech press. Almost a year after the drives appeared on the shelves, the voice of customers dissatisfied with the performance of the SMR drives in their NAS units reached levels that WD could no longer ignore. In fact, as soon as we heard about the widespread usage of SMR in certain WD Red capacities, we took those drives off our recommended HDDs list.

Finally, after starting to make amends towards the end of April 2020, Western Digital has gone one step further at last, and cleaned up their NAS drive branding to make it clear which drives are SMR-based. Re-organizing their Red portfolio, the vanilla WD Red family has become a pure SMR lineup. Meanwhile a new brand, the Red Plus, will encompass the 5400 RPM CMR hard drives that the WD Red brand was previously known for. Finally, the Red Pro lineup remains unchanged, with 7200 RPM CMR drives for high performance configurations.

WD NAS Hard Drives for Consumer / SOHO / SMB Systems (Source: Western Digital Blog)

While Western Digital (and consumers) should have never ended up in this situation in the first place, it's nonetheless an important change to WD's lineup that restores some badly-needed clarity to their product lines. The technical and performance differences between CMR and SMR drives are significant, and having the two used interchangeably in the Red line – in a lineup that previously didn't contain any SMR drives to begin with – was always going to be a problem.

In particular, a look at various threads in NAS forums indicates that most customers of these SMR Red drives faced problems with certain RAID and ZFS operations. The typical consumer use-case for NAS drives – even just 1-8 bays – may include RAID rebuilds, RAID expansions, and regular scrubbing operations. The nature of drive-managed SMR makes it unsuitable for those types of configurations.

It was also not clear what WD hoped to achieve by using SMR for lower-capacity drives. Certain capacity points, such as the 2TB and 4TB, have one less platter in the SMR version compared to the CMR, which should result in lowered production costs. But the trade-offs associated with harming drive performance in certain NAS configurations – and subsequently ruining the reputation of Red drives in the minds of consumers – should have been considered.

In any case, it seems probable that the lower-capacity SMR WD Red drives were launched more as a beta test for the eventual launch of SMR-based high-capacity drives. Perhaps, the launch of these drives under a different branding – say, Red Archive, instead of polluting the WD Red branding, would have been better from a marketing perspective.

As SMR became entrenched in the consumer space, it was perhaps inevitable that NAS drives utilizing the technology would appear in the market. However in the process, WD has missed a golden chance to educate consumers on situations where SMR drives make sense in NAS units.

For our part, while the updated branding situation is a significant improvement, we do not completely agree with WD's claim about SMR Reds being suitable for SOHO NAS units. This may lead to non-tech savvy consumers using them in RAID configurations, even in commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) NAS units such as those from QNAP and Synology. Our recommendation is to use these SMR Reds for archival purposes (an alternative to tape backups for the home - not that consumers are doing tape backups today!), or, in WORM (Write-Once Read-Many) scenarios in a parity-less configuration such as RAID1 or RAID10. It is not advisable to subject these drives to RAID rebuilds or scrubbing operations, and ZFS is not even in the picture. The upside, at least, is that in most cases users contemplating ZFS are tech-savvy enough to know the pitfalls of SMR for their application.

All said, WD has one of the better implementations of SMR (in the DAS space), as we wrote earlier. But that is for direct-attached storage, which gives SMR drives plenty of time to address the 'garbage-collection' needs. It is just that consumer NAS behavior (that is not explicitly user-triggered) may not be similar to that.

Consumers considering the WD Red lineup prior to the SMR fiasco can now focus on the Red Plus drives. We do not advise consumers to buy the vanilla Red (SMR) unless they are aware of what they are signing up for. To this effect, consumers need to become well-educated regarding the use-cases for such drives. Seagate's 8TB Archive HDD was launched in 2015, but didn't meet with much success in the consumer market for that very reason (and had to be repurposed for DAS applications). The HDD vendors' marketing teams have their task cut out if high-capacity SMR drives for consumer NAS systems are in their product roadmap.

Source: Western Digital

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  • limitedaccess - Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - link

    I actually feel tech media did a disservice with the reporting regarding this by only focusing on NAS drives.

    There should've been pressure on the manufactures to release details on all their drives including external ones.

    But because of the NAS focus there was only disclosure regarding NAS drives specifically.
  • Arbie - Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - link

    I agree completely with mmrezaie. Why even have a "NAS Hard Drive" that is inherently a poor choice for most NAS configs? Why wreck the Red branding which formerly (to NAS noobs like me) meant "good for NAS - buy this and you'll be OK"? Now Red means "go figure out if you'd even want this in the system".
  • MrVibrato - Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - link

    Because consumer/SOHO NAS HDD's, especially those with lower-capacities, have no noteworthy future in the market. The writing is on the wall, consumers will either migrate to cloud or SSD-based storage. Obviously, for HDD vendors prefer if consumers will rather transition to cloud instead to SSDs, because guess what that storage in the cloud data centers is made of...
  • jamies - Tuesday, October 13, 2020 - link

    Problem with cloud is that most broadband providers upload speed is vastly lower then the quoted download. for a 100GB image upload that may well take several days - so a USB is a reasonable choice - but... what drive is in the Seagate branded USB case - well you'll find out when you start using the drive and query the OS as to what the hardware is - and it is then that you can check the limits to the warrantee - maybe a whole 2400 hours of use on the shingularly slow drive.
  • Samus - Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - link

    Sometimes I think Sandisk is running WD's marketing. These are tactics that Sandisk (and to a lesser extent - Kingston) have been exploiting for at least a decade: dramatically changing the internal hardware of a product model without mention.

    For example: the Sandisk SSD Plus came in 3 versions; 2 different controller configurations and 3 different NAND types (only one of which is MLC) and while the performance metrics are firmware tweaked to meet their 'up to' marketing requirements, the sustained performance and DWPD were all over the place between models. Since they never disclosed sustained performance or DWPD, instead relying on burst performance (which is a bs metric since its limited by SATA in every modern SSD anyway) and MTBF (another bs metric for obvious reasons, a remnant of predicted hard disk "determined reliability")

    WD, distance yourself from Sandisk, they're going to sink you.
  • Gigaplex - Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - link

    Are they now going to charge more for these? If they charge more for the WD30EFRX WD Red Plus than I paid for my current WD30EFRX WD Red drives, this is just a money grab.
  • scineram - Thursday, June 25, 2020 - link

    I will be expanding my FreeNAS with IronWolfs, thank you. It already has Baracudas from just before they went SMR.
  • abufrejoval - Thursday, June 25, 2020 - link

    I have been a happy WD customer for decades.

    I was also lucky to completely bypass these SMR drives.

    What they have committed there is quite simply fraud. HDDs are block addressable devices that will have both the natural block and seek overheads, but otherwise have constant latencies on updates.

    SMR are *specific purpose* devices, meant for markets, who understand how they trade in-place update overhead for higher capacity at a given price point.

    To let this storage class lose on customers who might put these into ZFS or RAID5/6 appliances and then suffer unexplainable and hard to explain write amplification is quite simply a criminal offense.

    Leniency in this case is not only undeserved: Punitive action must be so scary, no bean-counter ever tries to take a similar route.

    Because the damage inflicted on affected puchasers of these drives is hundreds of times bigger than the value of these devices.

    To think that this is the company that Martin Fink is now working for: The shame must be taking 10 years from his life. Whoever let this happen basically invalidated everything he's done for the company and the life-time work of many more WD engineers, who gave their hearts for a superior product only to be failed by people who probably thought themselves smart.

    Very Volkswagen to me and I am a German driving Ford.
  • zodiacfml - Friday, June 26, 2020 - link

    WD deserves more punishment.
  • chaos215bar2 - Friday, June 26, 2020 - link

    Yeah, no.

    Now anyone seeking to "upgrade" an existing WD Red drive, who doesn't research exactly what they're getting (because why would you — WD Red was working just fine) gets stuck with SMR. And what's next? Is WD going to downgrade Gold and make a "Gold Plus"? "Black Plus"?

    The only thing this cleans up is the idea that WD's branding is worth anything. I'll be sticking with companies that don't play games with their established and trusted brands to sell inferior technology to customers who don't know the difference, thank-you-very-much. There's absolutely a place for SMR, and the low capacity drives in the long-established and (formerly) trusted WD Red line are most certainly not it.

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