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Hard disk drive technology trends

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Although solid state is emerging as a viable enterprise storage alternative, there's still plenty of life left in hard disk drive technology, with higher capacity, greener and more capable drives on the way.

Nobody is seriously suggesting the era of hard disk drive (HDD) technology is about to end. To the contrary, HDD vendors continue advancing the technology.

Still, a few doubts arise as solid-state drives (SSDs) and other solid-state technologies take on selective enterprise storage chores. "The amount of SSD replacing hard disk drives at present is miniscule," said Mark Geenen, chairman, International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association (IDEMA). Yet, IDEMA began accepting SSD vendors into its ranks in 2009.

More telling, maybe, are the enterprise storage managers willing to experiment with solid-state storage alongside HDD. "We're testing a couple of Fusion-io cards in some servers for a couple of high-performance trading applications," said Kevin Fiore, CIO at San Francisco-based investment firm Thomas Weisel Partners LLC. The company wants to determine if the 160 GB and 320 GB solid-state cards make enough of a difference to justify the extra thousands of dollars they cost.

Solid-state storage, however, will remain a small piece of the enterprise storage picture for some time (see "Is solid-state storage in your future?" below). Instead, what's driving enterprise storage is the continuation of HDD trends that have

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been underway for six years or more. The trends include the steadily falling cost per gigabyte of HDDs, the shift from 3.5-inch to 2.5-inch form factors, and a movement away from 15K rpm Fibre Channel (FC) to 10K and 7,200 rpm SAS and SATA drives. And don't forget ever-increasing disk densities reflected in the emergence of 1 TB and 2 TB drives, with 3 TB and 4 TB capacities on the horizon.

Is solid-state storage in your future?

The cost of solid-state storage fell dramatically in 2009. Prices will dip at a slower pace in 2010 but pick up again after that, according to Jim Handy, solid-state drive (SSD) analyst at Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, Calif. Although solid-state storage comes in a variety of forms, NAND flash has emerged as the leading choice for enterprise storage.

Until recently, solid state was too expensive for anything but situations demanding the highest high performance. In 2009, SSD cost, on average, 20 times more than Fibre Channel hard disk drives (FC HDDs) on a cost/GB basis, Handy noted. But if you compared them based on cost/IOPS, SSD blows away HDD.

To Mark Teter, chief technology officer at Advanced Systems Group, SSD's low cost/IOPS spells doom for FC HDDs. He advises companies requiring high-performing storage to replace their large numbers of FC spindles with a much smaller amount of SSD.

Already storage vendors and drive makers alike are embracing the HDD/SSD combination. EMC Corp., for example, has incorporated SSD as what amounts to tier 0 in its enterprise storage hierarchy and recommends its FAST product to automatically move data between SSD and HDD tiers. Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Oracle-Sun and many other storage vendors all offer SSD storage options.

This was first published in May 2010

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