Why thin disks don't matter

Why thin disks don't matter

Summary: Thinner disk drives - such as Seagate's new 5mm drive - are the last gasp of an old strategy: making drives smaller. It won't work. The future is elsewhere.

thin disks don't matter

The work of analyst Jim Porter, founder of Disk/Trend, showed that the basic disk strategy for the last 50 years was increase areal density and shrink drive size. While this seems simplistic – who couldn't see smaller disk drives coming? – it was enough to disrupt several generations of disk drive vendors.

Out of more than 200 disk drive manufacturers, since 1982 only two vendors – IBM and Seagate – managed to survive  two generations of drive shrinkage. From 14 inch to 9 inch to 8, 5.25 and 2.5 inch drives, each shift killed profitable drive manufacturers who could not adapt to a smaller form factor.

The industry was poised back in 2000 to move to a new and even smaller form factor, the 1.8 inch disk drive. Several were marketed and shipped but the advent of NAND flash stopped the 1.8 inch drive cold.

So having exhausted the possibilities of the X and Y-axis, the industry has moved on to the Z-axis: making thinner drives. They hope it does that thin drives will help them hang onto the mobile device market, but it won't.

The simple fact is that disk drives – even 2 1/2 inch disk drives – long ago overshot the storage requirements of most consumers. Capacity can be reduced by making drive thinner but it doesn't fix the problem of perceived fragility, power hunger and form factor inflexibility.

While fragility isn't a big problem today - Seagate's 5mm drive has a 400G operating shock spec - the 1.48 watts spec'd during seeks and the .48 watt idle consumption will mean a 15%-25% battery life hit on a 10 hour run time tablet. Some people will want the 500GB capacity - power users who'll run the battery down even faster - but most consumers don't care and won't pay the extra dollars required for more capacity at the cost of a shorter battery life.

If, perchance, it did start getting traction, Apple has the margin to drop larger capacities from the current $100 for the 1st 16GB option and $200 for the 48GB option. They probably pay ≈$5 for 16GB of flash.

The future
Drive vendors are already seeing the future, even as they fight to keep disks relevant to the mobile revolution. Here's what it looks like:

  • External storage. WD an Seagate's management have been pleasantly surprised at the rapid growth and higher margins of external storage products. They need to continue the consumer focus while extending up to the $40k (fully loaded) price band. 
  • Hybrid drives. Notebooks aren't going away even though sales are dropping. Hybrid disk/flash drives will be successful there, as will the 5mm drive with a driver that integrates mobo flash into a single virtual drive.
  • Specialized drives. HGST/WD's helium-filled server drive will be joined by a Toshiba version for Internet data centers. Seagate's announcement that they've sold over a million shingled magnetic recording (SMR) drives points to a long-overdue move into the archive disk market.

Other latent niches are waiting to be discovered once senior management realize that the old disk market - huge sales to PC vendors and high-margin sales to array vendors - isn't the future.

The Storage Bits take
The technology in disk drives is breathtaking. Drive vendors are rightfully proud of what they've achieved since the 5MB RAMAC - at $3,200 per month! - shipped in 1957.

Disk drives aren't going away - there is no economic substitute for bulk random access storage - but with PC demand dropping and 15k drives losing out to SSDs, the old business models are toast.

The 5mm drive is a good try, but don't expect much traction. Flash storage dominates the mobile segment and will continue to do so until something better comes along. Something better that isn't a disk.

Comments welcome, of course. Would you pay extra for a 500GB tablet that had a 20% shorter battery life? Why?

Topics: Storage, Apple, Mobility, Servers

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  • Actually...

    You'd be paying *less* not extra for that drive. SSDs are still significantly more expensive per GB than hard drives are. So the real issue is reliability - which you actually took off the list - speed and power consumption.

    Android an iOS tablets don't need 1TB of storage (although it would be nice).. but Windows slates are kind of a different breed. People do big data creation and manipulation on those things. I do high resolution sketching and illustration and my files are often 30MB+ and I often have files that over a gig.

    My Samsung Series 7 slate has 128GB and it's almost full. I created a Win8 VHD for boot up and that's 25GB and I can't keep it on the slate because I need other things as well - and you can't boot the VHD from an external drive. I'd be beside myself if I could slip that Seagate drive in there (well, except.. you know.. Seagate)...

    I'm already taking a hit just by using a higher performance CPU and GPU, so a little more of a hit to have a lot of storage isn't that terrible.
    • You are a niche market. . . .

      You and I are pro users. I have a 500GB SSD on my notebook and its pretty full. But for what most people do - the core of the tablet market - more storage would be nice but they aren't craving it.

      For the Windows market, where people have been trained over the last 2 decades to expect low-low prices, the added cost - at least $50 - of a disk in a tablet won't be worth it.

      Yes, people like you and maybe me might buy it, but for most people its overkill and overcost. That's what makes it a niche market and why it won't keep disk drives in most consumer devices - especially mobile ones.

      R Harris
    • are you sure?

      Are you prepared to give up the performance of your current SSD storage for a slow spinning drive? I don't think so...
  • Agreed...

    and with gadgets like Kingstons 1TB memory stick you can see where this is going. The technologies to watch are FeRAM type memories. They have read/write endurances so far at 10^14 cycles. And, in one test, they can last a lot longer, upwards of 10^40 cycles (an estimate, since the chip is still going strong). And, was not a Japanese company out there working on a holographic disc that can hold 60TB?
  • Let's not forget the creative pro at the desktop.

    SSDs are where it's at. I can load and render in one tenth the time than with a spinning disk. Two or three or four $200 for a top-o-the-line 250GB disk today is well worth my time. I don't own a single game, I'm not into social media (I have a real website for that) and email speed is the last thing on my mind. I use my computer for REAL WORK! Web design and media rendering. Looks, size and eye candy mean nothing to me, I've got work to do.
  • Of course thin matters

    It's clear to me the smarter config is on a moderate amount of SSD and as big a HDD as you can fit. The fact that this is not the industry standard may have a lot to do with their not being a thin HDD available to fit in these popular thin light laptops and tablets.

    The fact, as reported here, that external drives have been such a sales success indicates nothing if not the fact that so many people find their internal storage inadequate.

    If you want to make a high capacity hybrid hdd, you need as thin a drive as possible, in order to stack some SSD on top of it. If you want to stack multiple platters and make that fit in a super thin laptop, you need a thin platter mechanism to start with.

    I have a thin laptop with a 256GB SSD. Not cheap. I would gladly trade that for a hybrid arrangement of 1TB of HDD plus maybe 64GB of SSD. In most usage speed and battery life would be the same. But that wasn't available. Maybe if there had been a super thin HDD available, they would have offered that as an alt. config. and I would have the storage I need without having to drag around a clumsy external HDD everywhere or have to access that stuff on a network drive or cloud somewhere.

    Your argument that battery life will be cut is simplistic. If you have a decent amount of SSD, most of your usage will involve the HDD being spun down.
  • "Would you pay extra for a 500GB tablet that had a 20% shorter battery life

    Actually, you'd be paying *less* for that 500GB tablet disk drive than you'd be paying for a 64GB SSD for that tablet.

    The real concern would be startup and app loading times. A fast SSD is faster than any HDD you load into that tablet, and the faster the HDD is, the worse the battery life is. For most people, they like tablets because they can push the button and have everything be turned on in an instant. That's part of why adoption rate for Windows 8 is picking up despite the dissatisfaction with the Metro UI -- Windows 8 starts up much faster than Windows 7. In a notebook where you care about time between pushing the button and getting to work, that's important.

    I and everyone I know personally actually prefers to have a larger capacity hard drive. For file access, local beats streaming by an order of magnitude. Not to mention security. Keep the external drive for backup, but store any pictures and videos you want locally. For that reason, I could see thin hybrid HDD/SSD's getting into tablets. After all, the memory size is one of the advertising points, and if it kicks on as fast as a pure SSD tablet but has a much bigger memory, then it's sold.
    Jacob VanWagoner
  • NAS/Cloud

    The smallest HDD I'll buy from now on is 3.5in. If I need to access something anywhere, I can store it on the cloud. If I need to access it from one or more locations, but mostly at home, I can keep it on a desktop PC or NAS drive.
  • Maybe the government could cut the budget deficit

    by charging a modest fee to sell your data back to you in case of an emergency. Say $0.10 per gigabyte to restore your hard drive to last week over the internet.

    Dilbert just explored this concept in a story line which asked whether hacking into the NSA database to get a copy of your OWN (in this case, his company's) lost data back is illegal.
  • Enter the Enterprise Tablet

    When are we going to see across-the-board tablet purchase and deployment within the Corporate Sector? Yes, we already have enterprise tablet use, but it is certainly limited in its list of abilities.

    With true-Windows OS tablets finally available, would these thin high-cap disks find that niche -- the Enterprise Niche?
  • Hybrid drives are ~ideal for power users and enterprise use...

    I have been absolutely delighted with the performance of my seagate SSHDs... (I have a 2nd gen 750GB and a 7mm 500GB version)

    I guess I'm a pretty std power user, so we are talking a laptop (x300 holding a 64GB SSD + 500GB sshd) and a convertible X200 with the 750--- the ~5 year old X200 still fully boots Win8 in ~25 seconds, ~20 seconds for Mageia Linux and ~8 seconds for Android-x86.
    Gregory J. McGee
  • Battery Life...Cough....

    I have at least 10 different portables - laptops - tabs - smartphones - PC - Droid - Apple - a mix of all of them. On common denominator, I have to recharge any of the ones I use without turning everything on them off at least once before the end of the workday. So why would I pass up enough storage to actually hold my crap to get a piddle more (probably imaginary) battery life?