Big HDDs Set New Sales Record: 288 Exabytes in Q1

(Image credit: Toshiba)

Unit shipments of hard drives in the first quarter of 2021 were down both sequentially and year-over-year as consumer devices continued their migration to SSDs. Still, HDD capacity sold during the quarter set a new record of 288 exabytes as hyperscalers and enterprises upgraded their storage capabilities. Seagate remained the world's largest maker of hard drives in terms of units and exabytes (EB) shipped. 

Nearly 60% of New PCs Use SSDs

The industry shipped as many as 83.981 million PCs in Q1 2021, according to IDC. Meanwhile, only about 34.97 million hard drives for consumer PCs were sold last quarter (based on data from Trendfocus), so nearly 60% of personal computers shipped in Q1 used SSDs. This is not particularly surprising as many modern notebooks cannot house a hard drive. In contrast, enthusiast and workstation-grade desktops use SSDs because HDDs are rather slow for modern workloads by today's standards. 

The industry shipped 14.79 million hard drives for desktops (down 23% quarter-over-quarter) and 20.18 million drives for laptops (down 31.4% QoQ) in Q1, according to Trendfocus. The average capacity of an HDD for a client PC in the first quarter was 1.82TB (2.13TB for desktops, 1.58TB for notebooks), so most computers used rather inexpensive hard drives.

64 Million HDDs Sold in Q1

Hard disk drive shipments in the first quarter of 2021 totaled 64.17 million units, according to Trendfocus (via StorageNewsletter). Coughlin Associates (via Forbes) estimates that the hard drive TAM (total addressable market) in Q1 2021 was 64.1 million units, down from 67.8 million in Q1 2020. Meanwhile, Nidec believes that the industry sold 63 million units in the first quarter, up from 59 million units in the same quarter a year ago. 

(Image credit: Future)

Seagate retained its position as the world's leading maker of HDDs, with about 27.54 million HDDs sold in the first quarter and 42.9% of the market. Western Digital shipped 23.09 million drives and commanded 36% of the market. Toshiba was the distant No. 3 with 13.54 million HDDs supplied and 21.1% of the market. 

Seagate also led in average HDD capacity (5.07TB per drive) and exabytes shipments (139.5EB) in Q1 2021. In contrast, the average capacity of a Western Digital hard drive in Q1 was 4.72TB, and the company shipped 109.04EB of hard drive storage devices. 

Since the remaining three HDD makers don't disclose their detailed unit shipments, the numbers published by analysts are basically educated guesses. Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2021 did not bring many surprises as far as sales of hard disk drives are concerned, so the sales numbers and market shares should be quite accurate.

288 EB ~ 303 EB Shipped in Q1

The general trend for the hard drive market was set several years ago: HDD unit sales are declining while exabyte shipments are growing. Nothing changed in Q1 2021. Trendfocus believes that the total capacity of HDDs shipped by the industry was 288.28EB. By contrast, Coughlin Associates estimates that HDDs sold in Q1 2021 can store 303.34EB of data, up from 278.03 in Q1 2020. 

The lion's share of exabyte shipments belongs to 3.5-inch hard disk drives for servers, enterprise, nearline, and surveillance applications. About 16.05 million of such drives were sold in the first quarter, but with an average capacity of 12TB, they can store 192.78EB, thus commanding 66% of exabytes shipments in Q1 2021.

Console HDDs Are Dropping, DAS Remains Strong

Consumer electronics HDDs are a rather large category of storage devices for applications like game consoles, direct-attached storage (DAS), digital video recorders (DVRs), and similar things. Shipments of CE HDDs in Q1 2021 totaled 9.95 million units, according to both Trendfocus and Coughlin Associates. Meanwhile, the industry shipped 14.4 million CE hard drives in Q1 2020, based on data from CA. 

Since the latest game consoles from Microsoft and Sony no longer use HDDs, it is not surprising that shipments of hard drives for consumer electronics dropped significantly — by 31% — year-over-year.  

In fact, manufacturers shipped only 2.53 million 2.5-inch CE HDDs with an average capacity of 0.72 TB per unit in Q1 2021. The vast majority of 2.5-inch CE HDDs have been used for game consoles and branded external drives for years. So, as production of previous-generation gaming systems from Microsoft and Sony is winding down, shipments of 2.5-inchers will decline further. 

By contrast, sales of 3.5-inch CE HDDs remain strong. Trendfocus says about 7.42 million of these drives shipped during the quarter. An average capacity of a 3.5-inch CE hard drive was about 3.47TB, which indicates that most of them were used for various demanding applications, such as DAS. Branded DAS with high-capacity HDDs inside seems to be a pretty successful business for HDD makers as many people buy direct-attached storage for their PCs that come with SSDs (which do not always feature enough capacity for things like media).

Enterprise HDDs Booming

Enterprise HDDs have been the one bright spot in recent years. The enterprise-grade HDD category includes various drives for a wide variety of applications, including servers (both cloud and on-premise), enterprise NAS, nearline, and surveillance. In total, 19.25 million such HDDs were shipped in Q1 2021, according to Trendfocus. 

Surprisingly, despite general trends, shipments of 2.5-inch enterprise-grade HDDs (which includes legacy 10,000/15,000 RPM drives) totaled 3.2 million units, up both quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year. The average capacity of these HDDs was 1.37TB, so some legacy datacenters probably upgraded their capacities or just replaced old drives during the quarter. 

Sales of 3.5-inch enterprise-grade HDDs exceeded 16 million units and increased sequentially and annually in the first quarter. Enterprise-class 3.5-inchers shipped by the industry in Q1 could store 192.78EB of data, and their average capacity now slightly exceeds 12TB.  

Meanwhile, sales of nearline HDDs for exascalers like AWS and Microsoft Azure are booming. Seagate says that hard drives with 16TB and higher capacities (i.e., 16TB, 18TB, and 20TB) contributed nearly 50% of its capacity shipments during the quarter (139.5EB), which equals nearly 70EB.


 The HDD market in Q1 2021 brought no surprises and was consistent with trends set in the last five years or so.  

Mainstream client PCs are on track to replace HDDs with SSDs, but at the same time, people are buying more DAS, NAS, and cloud storage. To that end, shipments of client HDDs are declining, whereas sales of hard drives for other applications are growing. 

Enterprise-grade 3.5-inch HDDs are thriving. Now that data is generated not only by users but by computers themselves (in various forms), demand for storage will only grow and 288EB ~ 303EB of HDD storage shipped in Q1 2021 will increase rather rapidly in the coming quarters. 

Another emerging driver for HDD demand is of course Chia Coin cryptocurrency. At press time (on May 8), storage space allocated to the Chia network was nearing 3 exabytes, increasing three times from about 1 exabyte at the end of April. From the general market point of view, that is slightly over 1% of exabytes shipped in Q1, but it is already hard to acquire a high-capacity HDD at retail. What is going to happen next and whether Chia is set to become a factor that will cause a global shortage of hard drives is something that remains to be seen, but signs are not good for general users.

Anton Shilov
Contributing Writer

Anton Shilov is a contributing writer at Tom’s Hardware. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.

  • macgeek
    NAS drives up to 12 terabytes are sold to home users. It also seems like people are becoming disillusioned with streaming services and are opting for NAS systems. In addition to streaming services, there are services like iTunes and Google Play where you "own" the content but can only use it on select devices. I only have an 8TB WD Red in my NAS, but I just got back to collecting physcial media in 2016 after eight years in iTunes. I've picked up a few 4K titles and I'm planning on picking up some more in the future - while avoiding the upscale trap- though I'll probably hold off on compressing the 4K versions until I can get my hands on a 5900X.