A Look Into The Hard Drive's Future

Where Does The HDD Go?

The good ol’ hard drive is a controversial component. On one hand, it has shown impressive capacity increases that lead to the current 1.5 terabyte capacities (see Seagate announcement). On the other hand, performance hasn’t increased at the same rate as those capacity boosts. As a result, hard drives are still the slowest core components of any modern computer.

In addition, the hard drive market is highly competitive and in a constant change of flux, with new recording technologies, capacity, and performance on the one side and cost pressure along with emerging storage alternatives, such as flash memory squeezing on the other. We wanted to have a closer look at the hard drive arena and enlisted the help of Hitachi to do so.

Hard Drive Market Segments

The market is not as easy to assess as you might imagine, because there are multiple players that all focus on different product types. These can be primarily characterized through different form factors, most notably the 3.5,” 2.5,” and 1.8” sizes, as well as others. However, these form factors do not necessarily equate to a particular market segment. While the HDD market is divided into at least four segments—server/workstation, desktop, mobile, and consumer electronics—it is not possible to strictly assign each form factor to one of these segments. For example, there are 2.5” drives for notebooks, but there are also 2.5” models for servers. In addition, hard drive makers do not all cater to the same segments and form factors, but portfolios vary a lot.

Trends: Upswing for 2.5” Drives

The trend towards smaller form factors started many years ago when 5.25” hard drives were phased out in favor of the 3.5” ones, which were much easier to handle, faster and more robust. Higher recording capacities helped to bridge potential capacity gaps as a result of this move, since smaller platters store less data at comparable areal densities.

Today, the trend continues in favor of 2.5” hard drives for multiple reasons. The enterprise segment benefits from 2.5” server hard drives due to their much improved performance per watt and better I/O performance. Mobile computers, which still show the strongest growth worldwide, require lightweight and compact hard drive solutions. Finally, capacity isn’t an issue anymore today because of further increased recording density, and a plethora of interface options allowing users to add storage capacity as needed.

Threats to the HDD

Smaller hard drive form factors such as 1.8,” 1.3,” and 1.0” are still controversial. While we believe that 1.8” drives will remain an important segment for ultra portable computers and consumer devices, the smaller form factors at 1.3” and 1.0” face increasing pressure from flash-based drives. For starters, cost per capacity improves faster on flash products than on compact hard drive solutions. At the same time, the enterprise segment is also turning to flash SSDs, as high-performance versions easily outperform any mechanical drive.

The hard drive will not disappear any time soon, but the hard drive makers have to focus on the areas where flash memory cannot beat mechanical drives: cost per capacity when it comes to high storage capacities on 3.5” hard drives for the desktop; consumer and near-line enterprise storage; and cost for performance level in enterprise storage.