Necessity . . . the mother of invention — Plato
In the world of data storage technology, there are three fundamental necessities that drive invention: capacity, performance and price. Widespread adoption depends largely on a technology’s ability to deliver all three with the least amount of disruption to the user experience, not on the notion that any single technology can have a de facto impact on the hard drive market.
Over the course of the last five years, few markets have faced more pressure from so-called disruptive technologies than the hard drive market. The advent of cloud computing, the mainstreaming of the smartphone, the resurrection of the tablet, the rise of flash as a primary storage device for mobile computing, and solid state drives for performance-challenged enterprise architectures have seemingly heralded the beginning of the end of the hard disc drive. However, Seagate has consistenly maintained that the adoption of such technologies is, in fact, the very catalyst to the exploding demand for hard disc drives.1
For a technology to obtain widespread adoption, it must evolve, and technology evolves in steps: steps that over time eliminate complexity and deliver a significantly improved, yet very familiar experience. Consider the media tablet. The Microsoft Tablet PC concept launched in 2001 was the first iteration of a potentially disruptive technology. But it was almost ten years later, when Apple released the iPad, that the tablet earned widespread adoption. Why? Because Apple provides a device that is fun to use and delivers an improved, yet familiar user experience. Like the media tablet, the hard disc drive has been a part of these evolutionary steps over the past 30 years; it has led in other developments as well.
One Small Step, One Giant Leap
In a span of three decades, the hard disc drive has enabled the invention of new technologies. One could argue that the meteoric growth of the operating system and its software, the personal computer, the network, the Internet, the cloud, and yes, smartphones and media tablets would not be possible if it were not for the hard disc drive. Furthermore, as such technologies are developed further, their survival may not be possible without it.
With each improved user experience, there was a corresponding evolution of the hard disc drive. The laptop was driven by the evolution of 2.5 inch drives with lower power and higher durability; the DVR and gaming consoles by high-capacity, low-power, yet silent drives; the modern day data centre and cloud computing by advancements in interface, capacity, performance, power and reliability.
Consumers and businesses are not going to discard proven technology all at once for an entirely new and unfamiliar experience. They seek the next great step that takes their existing experience and simply makes it better. Solid state hybrid drives (SSHDs) do just that.
The Natural Evolution of the Storage Experience
Seagate first introduced a hybrid drive in 2007 with the Momentus® PSD product, which featured 128MB or 256MB flash options, was 100% reliant upon Microsoft Vista’s ReadyDrive and emphasized power efficiency for a better mobile experience. However, the product was not widely adopted, primarily because it did not deliver capacity, performance and price with the least amount of disruption.
Three years later, in May 2010, Seagate introduced a new hybrid — the Momentus® XT drive — and coined the term solid state hybrid drive. This time the focus was on delivering the necessities of capacity, performance and price with zero disruption to the user experience. The result? Seagate Adaptive Memory™ technology allows users to experience real world system performance gains of up to 50% without third-party software or operating system dependencies. It was a hit. By August 2011, Seagate had shipped over one million Momentus XT solid state hybrid drives.
Unlike competitive technologies (e.g. SSD, PCIe, flash cache modules or software such as Intel’s Smart Response Technology), which require differing levels of integration experience and expense for consumers and businesses alike, SSHDs look and act like traditional hard drives. There are no compatibility dynamics with operating systems, applications, or network and storage management programs.
There are no physical obstacles associated with system architecture, design or expansion capability. And there are no economical constraints with transitioning existing hardware or software investments to best take advantage of such technology. Throughout the evolution of the hard disc drive, systems became more dependent on seamless integration achieved through the intelligence being designed into the disc drive. From Native Command Queuing (NCQ), to Error Correcting Codes (ECC), to intelligent caching algorithms such as Adaptive Memory technology, such intelligence is critical to achieving success and providing minimal disruption to the user.
How SSHDs will Redefine the Hard Drive Market
Since the first commercial usage of hard disc drives that began in 1956 with the shipment of an IBM 305 RAMAC, the disc drive has rapidly evolved in five distinct ways: form factor, capacity, performance, interface and reliability. Over the past five years, we have seen the evolution slow down.
- Form factors have standardised on 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch formats. Drives may get thinner (7mm), but their footprint will probably remain the same.
- Capacity has been growing at a steady rate, but even that is threatened by the areal density limitations of perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR). It will not pick up again until heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) becomes feasible in the 2014 to 2015 timeframe.
- Performance gains, for quite some time, have been limited by both areal density improvements and the speed at which the discs can physically spin (RPMs). There is no sign of an increase beyond 15K RPMs.
- Interfaces will continue to evolve, with 6Gb/s SAS and SATA 6Gb/s being the latest iterations. Plans exist to move to 12Gb/s SAS in the next year, but SATA is expected to stall at the 6Gb/s speeds available today.
- Reliability is a given. Hard drive manufacturers continue to reduce annual failure rates (AFR) and increase mean time between failures (MTBF), especially for enterprise-class drives, but guaranteeing reliability has its limits for any technology.
Such limitations put added pressure on hard drive manufacturers to evolve. Capacity improvements and interface speeds alone may meet the necessities of invention (capacity, performance, price) and provide the least amount of disruption to the user experience today, but the user experience is also evolving. Advancements in software, processors, memory and network bandwidth are driving demand for an even faster user experience. Because of this, hard drive manufacturers will see a shift in the evolution of disc-based storage from an overarching emphasis on capacity to a rapidly growing emphasis on performance.
IBM researchers show (Figures 1 and 2) that areal density improvements are expected to maintain a CAGR of 25% to 40% over the next few years (Figure 1), while the maximum sustained transfer rates of drives have begun to level off (Figure 2).2 The demand for improved performance has never been so evident.
FIGURE 1: Areal Density Trend
FIGURE 2: Maximum Sustained Bandwidth Trend
Flash memory is the answer to the demand for performance. By integrating a small amount of flash into the hard drive, creating an SSHD, users get many of the performance benefits of flash technology without the added cost. In addition, when packaged in a 2.5 inch or 3.5 inch form factor and coupled with built-in intelligence, SSHDs provide the necessities of capacity, performance and price with the least amount of disruption to the user experience.
When it comes to hard drives, there will always be capacity growth, evolving interfaces and steady improvements in reliability, but what will begin to take centre stage is the storage supplier’s ability to differentiate on performance. SSHD technology with intelligence designed in is the natural path to enabling such differentiation, thus redefining the hard drive market over the next three years. Today, 2.5 inch solid state hybrid drives (SSHDs) for laptops already exist, and with 2.5 inch enterprise SSHDs and 3.5 inch desktop SSHDs coming in 2012, this natural evolution of storage is already upon us.
As Bill Buxton, a pioneer in computer graphics who is now a principal researcher at Microsoft says, “Anything that’s going to have an impact over the next decade, that’s going to be a billion-dollar industry, has always already been around for 10 years.”3
1Seagate Point of View articles: Cloud Computing — Answering the Need for Storage Best Practices and Media Tablets — The End of HDDs?
2IBM, GPFS Scans 10 Billion Files in 43 Minutes, 2011 http://www.almaden.ibm.com/storagesystems/resources/GPFSViolin-white-paper.pdf
3Wired, Clive Thompson on The Breakthrough Myth, August 2011 http://m.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/st_thompson_breakthrough/