Rocky Road Ahead for HDDs

Arthur Cole
Slide Show

Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2012 and Beyond

It's almost inconceivable that the revered and respected hard disk drive could go the way of the dinosaur. But even if no one is predicting its ultimate demise just yet, it seems the bad news just keeps coming for spinning, magnetic media.

First, there was the well-documented flooding in Thailand that is expected to hamper HDD production for much of the coming year. Hard disk shortages coupled with a glut of solid-state technology will likely cause many enterprises to rework their storage upgrade plans to reflect changing economic realities. As analyst Mark Peters explained to Network Computing, once enterprises transition their solid-state deployments from application-specific to more general storage functions, it will be very difficult for hard disks to regain lost ground.

But the forces of supply and demand aren't the only ones turning against hard disks. Some vendors seem bent on making the choice even more difficult by pulling back on service and support. Seagate, for example, is trimming the warranties on some of its top enterprise models from five years to three. The goal is to divert more capital to new product development, although it's hard to see how enterprises will justify spending on current technology if warranties barely extend to a single product lifecycle. Key systems affected include the Momentus XT hybrid drive and the Constellation 2 and ES.2 nearline drives, although top-tier models like the Cheetah will maintain existing warranties.

At the same time, hard drives seem to be the victims of their own success. According to HPCWire's Michael Feldman, increasingly dense configurations are causing drive heads to become ever more sensitive to vibration, not only from the drive itself but from others in the array, as well as nearby fans, power units and other devices. Ultimately, I/O performance degrades as the head is continually shaken off the data cells it is trying to locate. Companies like Green Platform Corp. have devised motion-dampening systems for rack-based storage, but this adds yet another cost to disk storage.

Then there is the fact that many of the top data-intensive applications, mainly databases, are switching to memory-based operations. Newcomers like VoltDB and Birst are touting so-called in-memory database platforms, but as Wired's Cade Metz noted recently, all of the top vendors are offering similar solutions. The technology is proving particularly useful in analytics, business intelligence and other applications that thrive on real-time or near-real-time performance.

Nevertheless, it remains a stretch to say that hard disk technology's current challenges will be its doom. But it is perfectly reasonable to see a near-future in which HDDs are no longer the dominant form of storage in the enterprise.

As data users seek flexibility and scalability rather than raw capacity for their day-to-day needs, hard drives are likely to become the exception in the data center, not the norm.

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