Hard Drives: The Bigger the Better

Arthur Cole

It seems lately that the mantra for hard disk designers is "go big or go home."

A number of new hard drives are slated to hit the channel in the coming year, most of which feature slower rotational speeds, large buffering systems and capacities ranging from 1 to 4 TB. It may be an unstated rule of thumb these days that unless a hard drive provides real eye-popping performance, it simply won't be able to hold its own against leaner, more agile solid-state technologies.

A case in point is Toshiba's new MG-series, slated for mission-critical, on-server and SAN/NAS architectures. The 3.5-inch device is available in 1, 2, 3 and 4 TB configurations and is equipped with a 64 MB DRAM buffer and 6 Gb SATA or SAS interfaces. Using a five-platter design, the drive represents a doubling of capacity over previous generations even as it improves on power and operational efficiency through off-peak idling and other management techniques. It also features an optional self-encrypting mechanism that features the new T12 Sanitize crypto-scramble protocol, as well as the earlier ATA Security Erase command system.

Meanwhile, Western Digital is out with the new Black drive, which also sports 4 TB capacities, 7200 RPM, 64 MB cache, but includes a dual-state actuator system that improves positional accuracy of the heads to support high-performance applications such as gaming, multimedia and video editing. The drive also features a number of innovations designed to improve seek speeds, stabilization and wear reduction to improve power consumption and durability.

It's possible, then, that what we're seeing is a shift in utility between the hard disk and solid-state segments. Where once the SSD was considered a niche device, it is quickly becoming a general-purpose storage solution across the enterprise, all while hard drives are being tailored for specialty applications.

A quick look at sales figures shows mixed results for hard drives as well. Seagate saw HD sales drop nearly 10 percent in its first quarter, even though profitability jumped more than 15 percent due to increased prices following last year's flooding in Asia. Western Digital, meanwhile, saw the opposite effect: increased shipments but lower profits.

And it seems that the value proposition for solid state is only going to get better in the coming year. For some time now, pundits have been talking about the eventual price parity between HDDs and SSDs as volume shipments of the latter bring unit costs down. But even though solid state still tops hard disk on the capital end, recent analyses indicate that opex benefits will more than make up the difference. According to the UK's J. Gold Associates, the extra $200 or so for an SSD-equipped desktop will net close to $30,000 in increased productivity over a three-year lifecycle — a stunning 150-fold return on investment.

Productivity is an elusive beast, however, so there is probably ample room to quibble with Gold's numbers. But even if he's half right, that still represents a compelling reason to begin wholesale replacement of hard disks throughout the enterprise, particularly as costs continue to decline.

Hard disks may continue to rack up impressive capacity levels and advanced feature sets, but its days as the enterprise storage workhorse are probably numbered.



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