Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hard Drives eye SSD - friend or foe?

This is what it's like when worlds collide (song) - well, maybe not worlds, more like data storage technologies with different substrates.    As reported at TomsHardware, Steve Luczo, CEO of magnetic storage hard drive manufacturer Seagate, made some interesting comments regarding up and coming Solid State Drive (SSD) technology (full transcript).

First, on the product most famous for its SSD option, the MacBook Air (discussed here by Mac himself :) Luzco states the percentage of those units sold with SSD is very low, so it's not a threat.  Second, SSD drives are too small (low capacity) and too costly.  Third , SSD slows down over time, so their performance is not as great as you've heard.  And last, "Seagate introduced hybrid drive last quarter, you get basically the features and function of SSD at more like disc drive cost and capacity ... with the hybrid there is things that you can do to alleviate that [performance degredation] so your boot times are actually as compelling one and two, three and four years down the road."

There you have it, resistance is futile, prepare for assimilation.  Well, that is certainly one point of view, but in reality things could turn out less comfortable for Big Magnetic Storage (yeah, I said it :P) than they would like to admit.

As reported at RealWorldTech, SSD is a classic disruptive technology.  There is a certain amount of storage each user needs, and as the cost per bit of SSD continues to follow Moore's Law, SSD will continue to meet an increasing percentage of users' needs.   A possible counter argument is that users' needs are increasing exponentially, but I wonder if this is really happening.  Most of the large data requirements come from audio and video libraries, where storage demands increase when the libraries get bigger or gain quality.  In my case I have about two hundred albums in my music library that I have collected over the last decade, and it is really unlikely this will double to 400 albums in the next two years.  Furthermore, high definition video is pretty close to the resolution of the human retina, making demand for further improvements (and their requisite bitrate increases) unnecessary.

To hard drive manufacturers, SSDs represent the wild west.  In the vertically integrated magnetic storage business, manufacturers build the entire hard drive themselves in factories that cost billions of dollars.  In contrast, the flash memory chips that store data in SSDs are a commodity, similar to DRAM memory chips, and anyone can buy them wholesale and integrate them into SSDs.  This allows anyone to become an SSD OEM and ushers in a new competitive environment that previously wasn't.  It will be interesting to see how this new west is won.

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