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Been there. Done that. Seen it all. Interview with AL Shugart on the 50th anniversary of disk.

If there is an industry icon in the hard disk space, it is Alan Shugart. Starting with RAMAC in the early '50s, Shugart has been in place for every major development that disk drive technology has to offer--as engineer, business wizard, or both. For this special section, Alan shares his memories of the early days as well as his thoughts on the future of hard disk technology.


CTR: The disk drive industry is more or less a huge success. It's probably a unique success in the history of technology--part of it being the creation of the technology and part of it being the development of where this industry is going. Where did it start? Where it is now? And where do you see the disk drive industry moving in the near future--because we can't dwell on the past?

Shugart: First of all, you can start off with the end. Mechanical storage is going to be gone. It's all going to be semi-conductor, or something like that, and I've been predicting that for the past five years. In the beginning, it took the place of magnetic tape.

I started at IBM in customer engineering in the field in 1951--the day after I graduated from college. I worked in their Santa Monica and Riverside, California, branch offices. I'd seen all the problems that you'd ever have to fix, and so I was going to quit in 1955. But my branch manager said, "Don't quit. They've opened a new laboratory in San Jose. They might very well be interested in having you up there." So IBM sent a guy down from the research and development lab in San Jose to interview me in Riverside. He told me that they had a project called RAMAC, and that they were looking for a guy or two in the customer engineering field to help them with the planning of the maintenance strategy. I agreed to transfer from Riverside to San Jose in 1955.

I got assigned to the RAMAC project but I didn't do anything in customer engineering. They put me right into design engineering the very first day, although I'd never done design engineering. We were working on a machine called the RAMAC, but it wasn't a machine that was eventually put into production, it was a development machine. I helped the guy that was responsible for designing the processing unit of the 305-a. They built 12 of them. When we finished that project, they decided to build a plant downtown, in south San Jose. They wanted to design a 305-a and make a production machine out of it. And I was assigned to be the head of designing the processor--and that's what I did. We built about 5,000 or so. I was then assigned to take charge of the whole system. From there, I went back to product development and was in charge of random access development for the company in San Jose.

I had people working for me throughout the early '60s. I was in charge of all random access memory development for the whole company, all over the world. In 1969, I began to tire of it and IBM wanted to transfer me from San Jose to New York. And I did--for about two weeks. After that, I told the guy I worked for--who was in charge of the division--that I didn't want to transfer. He told me that I didn't have a choice, so I went along with the deal. But I never really moved there. I lived back there for a few weeks and then one day I went to my manager's office and I handed him a note that said, "I quit!" And I was out of there. That's my story on the disk drive industry.

CTR: That's good for the beginnings of RAMAC. What do you think are the significant mile-stones after that and up until today in the disk drive industry?

Shugart: The first milestone was the concept of the disk drive as opposed to the tape drive. And that was first done in the 305 RAMAC. First of all, let me tell you that the first disk drive--in order to have the magnetic heads float on the disk--you had to have external air. You had to supply the air to separate the head from the disk as the disk was spinning. That was the first disk drive. The next big thing that happened was the slider bearing, an air bearing that got rid of the external supplied air. It was a self-acting bearing. The disk spun, you loaded the head on it and it automatically flew. The heads were really, really important. In order to get fast access you had to have a head on each surface. The original machine had two heads for the whole disk drive and they had to go up and down to find the disk you wanted and then go in and find the track. We had to get the cost of the heads down so you could have a head on each surface--so that you didn't have to move the heads from surface to surface, which meant access time. That was the third thing that brought the cost of the heads down--being able to have a head per disk. I don't think anything really exciting happened after that.

CTR: What about areal density and access speeds?

Shugart: That was really just part of normal evolution, but it was never a big deal.

CTR: How about miniaturization?

Shugart: I think that it's all over. I think that miniaturization will end up as a non-botanical kind of storage. Like we're seeing with Flash. I think that nano-technology is going to take over and you're going to be able to obtain gazillions of bits of data stored on a piece of material that you can access electronically and you won't have to rotate it.

CTR: Isn't one of the problems that getting the information from here to there hasn't developed as quickly as the capacity?

Shugart: Yes, that's always been a problem.

CTR: What about interoperability? You were a big pioneer in that.

Shugart: The thing right now is, the storage that you've got--these volumes of files--how do you find this stuff? I'm the chairman of the board of a company called Black Ball. They make software that is absolutely outstanding. They make software that, for the first time, has a programming system that helps you find the data. Here you've got gazillions of bytes of data and how do you find it? You have a programming system that finds that out. Storage management is going to be the next big thing in storage.
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Title Annotation:Golden Anniversary of HDD
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Previous Article:The most important invention of the 20th century? To one who was there, it was disk.
Next Article:A new approach to SRM: the modular advantage.

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