Is the Sun Setting on HDDs?

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Are hard-disk drives really on the way out? That question keeps rearing its head as solid-state technology continues to show rapid improvements in speed and capacity even while costs come down.

It's to the point now where even disk drive manufacturers are starting to see the sun set on the technology. Hitachi CTO Hu Yoshida voiced his opinion over the weekend that HDDs have a 10- to 12-year future, by virtue of the fact that capacities are still on the rise and the cost differential with SSDs is still high enough to maintain their appeal as a versatile storage solution. But the fact that hard-drive speeds are not keeping up with server processing capabilities and that the cost per GB is starting to creep up leads him to believe enterprises won't be able to use HDDs effectively over the long term.

It's hard to downplay the impact that SSDs have had on the enterprise, based on sales figures. IDC estimates that the technology saw a 250 percent growth curve in 2009, most likely a reflection that the growth curve started at near zero and of enterprises' eagerness to test out the new drives in real working environments. For 2010, the company predicts a slower growth rate of 85 percent, which would still make SSDs the fastest-growing segment of the storage market.

Much of that growth is likely to come from small and midsize organizations, according to processor.com. While cost factors do weigh more heavily in smaller organizations, a heavy selling point it that today's SSDs can achieve drive consolidation ratios up to 100:1. And since even small enterprises are quickly deploying high-speed servers and networking devices, IOPS are becoming an increasingly important barometer when evaluating storage solutions.

Of course, there are forces working against SSDs, as well. As market analyst Gregory Wong explained to Network Computing recently, chip supplies are tightening up, which should put even more pressure on prices. And since margins are generally higher in the high-volume consumer market, some vendors could start to pull back from enterprise solutions over time.

I always hate to predict the end of any given technology simply because a seemingly new and better one comes along. Railroads and movie theaters were expected to fall to airplanes and televisions, and yet all of these technologies managed to coexist.

But I have to pause a moment when leading manufacturers start talking about the sunset of one of their most lucrative product lines. If the people making money say they are reading the writing on the wall, maybe the hard drive has just about run its course after all.