Why we'll see even more disk drive choice

Why we'll see even more disk drive choice

Summary: It's a paradox: we are down to 2 1/2 disk drive companies, but seeing more innovative disk drives then we have in years. Thin drives; hybrid drives; helium filled drives. Why?


Second source.  For decades OEM buyers insisted on a second source for every product. This forced vendors to offer cookie-cutter products.

But now that disk drive manufacturing has been reduced to Seagate, Western Digital and Toshiba, what is the point of having a second source? PC vendors just have to trust that they'll have enough drives - and if they don't, well, too bad.

Thank the 2011 Thai floods for that new-found realism.

Innovation  Take the helium filled drive, for example. There is a lot of high technology that goes into building a container that won't leak.

Of course competitors will tear down the drive to understand the technology. But they'll see how successful the product is before deciding to invest in building a similar drive.

Western Digital, whose Hitachi Global Storage Technology subsidiary developed the drive, can ask buyers to pay a reasonable price given the economic benefits of higher capacity, lower power consumption and better performance.

Likewise Seagate can offer a 5mm thick hard drive knowing that customers will evaluate its business benefits, rather than insisting on a second source before they will incorporate it. Given the PC's sales freefall and the poor sales of Ultrabooks at their current MacBook Air price points, the 5mm drive will no doubt find many buyers.

The Storage Bits take   Several factors are at work:

  • The global decline in PC sales forces PC vendors to get creative. Withering tablet and smart phone competition is seeing to that.
  • Drive vendors have more market and pricing power because there are fewer of them. No PC vendor can afford to alienate the disk drive manufacturers.
  • Finally, the entire disk drive industry is under threat from the rise of solid-state drives. If disk drive vendors want to be in business in another five years they have to get creative.

Maybe not so creative as to start producing disk drives for archive use to displace costly high-end tapes. But the end of second source tyranny is a boon not only the industry but to all consumers as well.

Comments welcome. What other changes to disk drives would you like to see?

Topics: Mobility, Data Centers, Storage

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  • Multiple disks in one package

    Since you're asking, I'd like to see single component raid disks with integrated redundancy for consumer use. For enterprise it makes sense to have seperate drives on a raid but many consumers do not realize what it means to not switch the broken drive of a redundant raid setup. They can deal with "your drive will break down any time now, save your data while you can".

    All that technology, raid, ssd, single cell, multi cell - just make it available in a compact form, already set up so the average user can use it. If one disk on the raid breaks down, have the OS tell the user to replace the disk - best have the OS tell the user if it's on warranty, too.
    • Re: "save your data while you can"

      RAID isn't a substitute for backup.
  • People misunderstand competition

    Unfortunately, the miserable teaching of Economics (using Paul Samuelson's book) has caused people to think that you want 50 companies making every product so that you have good competition. That's simply ridiculous. Having more producers of a given product is often not better, and economic forces will help sort that out. The economy may even decide that a single producer is the right number, and the threat of competition is enough to keep that single producer from acting like the fabled monopolies that everyone seems to fear. Single producers are only harmful when government is actively preventing other companies from entering the market.
    • Dual Sourcing Not (Just) About Competition

      The big issue is having a single point of failure in your supply chain. If XYZ is the only firm that makes a critical, non-substitutable component of your product, you are at risk of significant disruption of manufacture due to any number of scenarios at XYZ.
  • 3.5" SSD / Hybrid

    I may be missing something here, but I've never seen an SSD drive in a 3.5" form factor. Only 2.5" requiring an adapter for loading into a desktop computer.
    It shouldn't be difficult to offer a nice sized hybrid with 2-3TB of spinning drive and say 256GB SSD.
    • No market

      There isn't really a market for that. Hybrid drives use the flash memory as a cache, As such, there isn't much value in having large volumes of flash space as most of it would not be well utilized but would make the drive quite costly. (Also, 2.5" drives can go in both mobile and desktop systems, with mobile being the greater seller these days.)

      The best approach out there at the moment is Apple's Fusion drive technology, which makes deciding where an application should live an OS level function and avoids wasted space by presenting the combined capacity of a hard drive and an SSD as a single volume. Thus a 1 TB drive and a 256 GB SSD combine to appear to the user as a single 1.25 TB volume and it automatically puts the most frequently used apps in the flash portion and keeping file types that do not benefit, such as video, on the platter drive.

      There are more form factors coming as well. Most people don't know about mSATA SSDs but it is very useful for getting an SSD and a full hard drive into a smaller system. mSATA will be replaced by a new version which is longer and narrower but is expected to find its way into a lot more designs. (I'm currently building a mini-ITX HTPC using a motherboard that has an mSATA slot on the underside to allow a tiny machine with 256 GB of storage. It's looking pretty nifty.)
  • More THAN .....

  • Data Errors occurring - that you DON'T find out about : next 5 years ?

    Moors law is still strong for storage volumes, and almost so for data rates. Likewise with disk data over the Net (10 and 100Ge+ L-2 continent-wide), without a clear end in sight. What hasn't changed is the rates of undetected data errors - per GB of data stored & transferred: ECCs and TCP checksum technologies have no plan for improvement right now and are 2 to 4 decades old.
    So for each 10x increase of storage -then- throughput (every 2 yrs?), I'm getting 10x the number of undetected errors in what I see on my screen; and elsewhere (executables that load then crash, Amazon S3 outage for a day in 2008, my bank account that NEEDS a good error into the black right now!).
    A decade ago - it 'never' happened due to rarity.
    Where are we today (# undetected errors per TB stored ... per GB Net-communicated)?
    Where will we be every 2 years over the next 6? - a spreadsheet maybe with a prediction graph?
    I notice only about 3 heavily referenced real research, old papers out there right now, you have also referenced, from: Google, CERN, and Stanford DSG. Anything new? - any current status and predictions?
    Why? like a century ago if 'it' was written down - 'it' was TRUE; today if 'it' comes from a computer - 'it' is TRUE. This baloon needs some deflating and awareness.
    Thanks, Mike
  • Return to 5.25" form factor?

    If you can fit 1Tb of data onto a 3.5" form factor, how many terabytes will fit on a 5.25" disk manufactured with the same technology? 2.2Tb? It may have to spin at a slower speed, but that's one way to get your disk-replacement-for-tape technology.
  • Stop making them bigger, make them faster and more reliable.

    In a business environment, the users all store data on the servers. The local hard drive is only to run the computer itself. 80 GB drives are plenty big for our use! But my 80 GB drives are failing and all I can replace them with are 320 GB, 500 GB, etc...

    Ever see the product reviews on newegg.com? Every single drive has at least a 10 - 15% failure rate, and higher for the bad ones. It has been a race to the bottom, and they have arrived! Half the people say they will never buy another WD again. The other half say they will never buy a Seagate again. There isn't much choice after that ...

    I just took a PIII out of service. It had a 20 GB drive. It has been running for 11 years. No way can I get that out of a new drive!

    I have a 2 TB external. I had it replaced twice under warranty already. It keeps corrupting the MFT and will not allow itself to be ejected properly. I have to run a diskcheck over the weekend because it takes so long!

    Please, I don't need bigger, I need faster and more reliable.