Singapore aims to spur industry with 5mm hybrid HDD

Government agency A*Star expects its innovation, called A-Drive, to open up opportunities for related industries in the country and sustain job creation.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has unveiled a 5mm hybrid hard disk drive (HDD) in a 2.5-inch form factor, one of the world's thinnest available, as part of a project aimed at extending the shelf life of the country's existing tech industries.

Called the A-drive, it potentially could be fitted into tablets and other handheld devices to allow storage capacities of up to 1 terabyte (TB) or around 250,000 songs, and extend battery life by 30 percent, said Pantelis Alexopoulos, executive director of A*Star's Data Storage Institute (DSI).

Measuring the 5mm hybrid hard disk drive (Credit: DSI)

The drive can also be utilized for enterprise storage applications, reducing power consumption by up to 50 percent, and to produce slimmer ultrabooks and laptops, Alexopoulos told ZDNet Asia in an interview.

"Although there have been technological improvements such as in capacity and connectivity, scalability of the battery has not caught up and there are also scalability limitations of Flash," he explained.

He pointed out smaller hybrid drives would be the future for devices, since it combined the advantages of a faster, but more expensive SSD, with the capacity scalability of a HDD.

Birth of hybrid idea
According to Alexopoulos, the DSI started development work on the device last year and was the first in the world to come out publicly to talk about the concept.

He said the idea struck him when he was taking apart an Apple iPad when the tablet first hit the market. It then became the first project he proposed at DSI, when he joined nearly three years ago.

"When I pitched the idea to International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association (IDEMA) in Japan, they thought I was crazy," he said.

One of the challenges in shrinking the hybrid drive from the then-existing standard of 7mm was the need to reduce the thickness of its spindle motor without compromising performance.

"It had to pass the 'wife check'--cheap enough for a guy not have to ask for his wife's permission to buy it."

"We also had to make sure it was not too expensive to make. It had to pass the 'wife check'--cheap enough for a guy not have to ask for his wife's permission to buy it," Alexopoulos quipped, adding it cost around US$60 to manufacture the device.

Sustaining Singapore's industries
Other industry players appear to have caught onto the same concept. Western Digital (WD), for instance, last month launched its own version of a 5mm hybrid HDD.

Alexopoulos said A*Star's product was not designed to compete with the industry, but to support Singapore's technology sectors by pushing for the 5mm hybrid form-factor and allowing them to stay relevant in the supply chain.

The government agency hopes this would lead to a trickle-down effect, with every job created usually indirectly creating another eight jobs, he said.

He added DSI was open to sharing details about the A-drive with the industry and had done so with WD at an earlier stage of the project, sharing design concepts and details over a presentation.

The difference between both versions is the motor used in DSI's offering is thinner, he said, adding it was A*Star's commitment to the concept which propelled the industry toward the direction for a 5mm drive.

"If it was for personal glory, I would have kept everything to myself," Alexopoulos said. "My goal is to extend the shelf life and relevance of existing tech industries in Singapore."

He noted WD opened a R&D center in Singapore last year, which was a big testament to the government agency's efforts.

Areas of potential
Other areas of research DSI is banking on are green data center technologies, non-volatile memory, and transmission of information.

It already has plans to improve the current design by shrinking the A-Drive's actuator--motor to control a mechanism--which could help make the hybrid HDD lighter by 30 percent and smaller by 20 percent. It currently weighs about 84 grams.

Associated patents will be handled by A*Star's strategic marketing and commercialization arm, Exploit Technologies, which might explore potential spinoffs and licensing.

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