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The disk drive: 50 years of progress and technology innovation: the road to two billion drives.

50 Years of Hard Disk Drives

A Golden Anniversary

It seems like only yesterday. You remember yesterday, a storage world filled with clunky metal monsters hoarding bits the way banks hoarded cash--and just as inflexibly. IBM changed all that with hard disk drive development starting in 1952, and first products two years later.

In this issue, we take a look back from the point of view of the creators themselves--as well as providing a timeline of what has passed, and some hints at what will come.

CTR celebrates "The Golden Anniversary of HDD" beginning on page 8.

The hard magnetic digital disk drive, as we know it today, is used in all computer applications--in home appliances and PVR/DVRs, in automobiles, cameras, and medical applications. It is now pervasive in all segments of our society. The technology got its start in IBM's San Jose laboratories in 1952, with innovators such as Rey Johnson, Dr. Al Hoagland, Al Shugart and Bobby Smith, among others. The disk drive is unique in its history for overall cost reductions, while at the same time fostering rapid technology growth, and reaping amazing production ramps. Success in this industry has been associated with:

* Device size reduction

* Ongoing and substantial cost reduction per MB

* Dramatic technology increases

* High volume production efficiencies.


As a result of these accomplishments, the industry has grown from a volume of several thousand disk drives per year in the 1950s to over 260 million drives per year in 2003. The first digital hard disk drive was the 24-inch IBM 350-1, which was announced in 1955 and began shipping in 1956. This drive housed fifty 24-inch disks, had an access time of 600 milliseconds, and a capacity of 5.0 megabytes. Table 1 compares the specs on the 350 with the most recent Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 disk drive of 2003.

During this same period of time and due to the technology and production volumes, the cost of magnetic disk storage has decreased from $2,057 per megabyte in the 1960s to $.005 today--and the price per MB will continue to decrease in the future (Table 2).

The yearly volume demand of disk drives has, with the exception of 2001, increased each year since the late 1970s. Figure 1 shows the annual production of disk drives by form factor from 1975-2004. This data was gathered yearly by Disk/Trend to 1999, and by Peripheral Research and Coughlin Associates from 2000 on.

Sometime during the third quarter of 2004, the disk drive industry will reach a historical cumulative shipment level of 2 billion disk drives, and will reach the 3.5 billion mark within the next 3.5 years. The fastest growing segment in disk drive unit growth is for consumer electronic applications. Consumer electronics (CE) disk drives will approach the numbers of disk drives used for conventional desktop computer applications by 2010.

To accomplish these volumes, technology feats and production numbers, the disk drive industry grew in number of participant companies from, initially, IBM and a few other early companies to approximately 136 competing companies in the mid 1980s. Due to intense competition and price wars, industry consolidation has decreased this number to the nine companies that exist in 2004 (see Tables 3,4 and 5). Of these nine companies, two are recent start-up companies focusing on the small disk drives for the Consumer Electronics markets (Cornice and GS MagicStor).

Other Technologies

Throughout the last 50 years, there have been many other competing companies with technologies that have threatened the future of disk storage. These include:

* Solid State Memory (many different types)

* Magnetic Bubble Memory

* Optical Tapes

* Optical Disks


* Probe Storage

However, to date, none of these technologies has been able to duplicate the momentum behind disk drive technology and the dedicated, relentless striving for higher performance and lower cost. Additionally, as each year has gone by, production volumes have became higher and production efficiencies have became better--leading to ever-cheaper disk drives.

In the 1950s through the 1990s, magnetic tape was widely used as a key storage component. Today, tape continues to be used for backup and archiving, with ATA-based RAID storage systems being increasingly used for primary backup and tape as final archive storage.

Solid-state memory is widely used in solid-state disks and flash memory. Due to the higher cost per megabyte of semiconductor memory, it is not used for mass storage applications. For digital cameras and today's cell phones, flash memory is widely used and is cost effective versus most of the alternative storage options. Solid-state disk drives are used in high performance enterprise systems and military systems to speed up data processing; however, they are usually used in conjunction with disk drives.


Component Technologies

Disk drive technology growth has been very dependent on drive components, and subassemblies. These small parts require exact, efficient construction. Disk drive magnetic heads, magnetic media, motors, positioning systems and electronic circuits are the major areas of disk drive technology growth. The first hard disk drive had a hand-wound core of magnetic metal with an air bearing established by blowing air through a hole in the head. In the 1970s, disk drives used hand-wound ferrite core "Monkey Face" heads and 14-inch 300 Oersted coercivity Ferric Oxide media. Today's GMR (Gigantic Magneto-Resistive) heads are produced using semiconductor processing methods and precise machining operations.

The latest variety of magnetic recording media is 1 inch or less in diameter, and has a thin film media coercivity between 3500-4000 Oersted laid down on glass substrates. These advanced head and media components are mostly produced in Asia.


Disk spindle motors have progressed from ball bearings to fluid film bearings. Asian companies produce these in Asia, as well. Companies such as NMB, Nidec, Sankyo-Seiki, and a few others dominate these markets.

Figure 2 indicates the annual head production, and technologies. Figure 3 shows production and technology for magnetic media.

Note that while disk drives will reach 2 billion cumulative units shipped in 2004, heads will reach close to 9 billion cumulative units shipped, and magnetic media will reach over 4.5 billion cumulative units shipped.

Geographic Production Strategies

As the disk drive industry strove for lower costs, U.S. production costs were constantly increasing. As a consequence, production for the hard-disk drive industry kept moving to lower labor cost areas--sometimes, at great cost. Initially, the components industry tried utilizing labor in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Barbados (AMC, Infomag, Microdata); however, in most cases, adequate infrastructure was not in place. In the mid to late 1970s, the industry moved to Japan and Korea to achieve greater stability, workforce dedication, and lower labor costs. During the 1980s, the industry opened production plants in Singapore, as their government was offering tax subsidies and capital subsidies for plant construction. Most of the disk drive companies relocated production to Singapore at one time or another, and since then they have expanded to Thailand, Malaysia, China and other Asian localities. (See From Silicon Valley to Singapore, David McKendrick, Stanford University Press, 2000.)

The criteria that established these Asian manufacturing operations was a combination of government subsidies, educated labor force, lower labor rates, and country infrastructure that allowed sub-components to be produced by qualified local companies. Asian countries also developed an advanced education system, such as Singapore had, to produce qualified job candidates that could support corporate production goals.

Although most of the hard drive companies began with a high percentage of expatriates, the goal was to reduce them as soon as possible, since ex-pat costs were high. Seagate Penang had approximately 6 ex-pats, for approximately 10,000 factory workers in their thin film head plant in the late 1980s.

The industry expanded throughout Asia to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia (temporarily), the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China. Today, companies are moving into China with factories for drives and components. Seagate, Hitachi, Fujitsu, TDK/SAE Maxtor, and others are building production plants in China.

The Future

The disk-drive industry will continue to be driven by manufacturing efficiency and rapid technology development. This will continue to result in cost competitive storage. The overall future for digital data storage remains excellent, driven by consumer and industrial applications. Today Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and others are looking for storage for cell phones; Motorola's G-3 phones will be multi-functional and have storage and video capabilities, needing the significant amounts of storage that only hard disk drives can provide. According to IDC, 2003 worldwide cell phone numbers were 536 million--increasing to 745 million in 2007. Eventually, all cell phones will have significant internal memory. Cell phones may also have removable memory so that the user can switch his database among phones.

Most future HDTV systems will have disk storage; Hitachi recently announced a 400GB TV disk drive, which will store 400 hours of standard television or video.

Figure 4 indicates the forecast of disk drives expected to ship into various market niches over the next few years.


The conventional data storage industry should be financially healthy over the next few years, as more hard copy data is transferred to magnetic storage and as stabilizing drive prices, slowing technology development and increasing volumes lead to large revenues and decent margins.


Bryant Computer * Burroughs * Caelus Memories * Century Data Systems * Control Data * IBM Fujitsu * Hitachi * ISS/Univac * Marshall * Memorex * NCR * NEC * Potter Instruments * Toshiba

Table 3


Advanced Storage Tech * Alpha Data * Alps Electric * Amcodyne * Ampex * Applied Information Memories * Applied Peripheral Systems * Areal Technology * Atasi Corporation * Athenaeum * Ball Computer Products * BASF * Brand Technologies Burroughs * Cardiff Peripherals * Century Data Systems * CII-Honeywell Bull * Cipher Data Products * Cogito Systems * Comport * Computer Memories * Computer Peripheral Technik * Conner Peripherals * Control Data * Cybernex * Dastek * Data General * Data Peripherals * Datapoint * Data Recording Equipment * Data-Tech Memories * DDC Pertec Digital Equipment Corporation * Disctron * Disk Memory Technology * Disk Tech One DMA Technologies * DZU (ISOT) * Epson * Evotek * Fuji Electric * Fujitsu * Goldstar Telecommunication * Hawker Siddley * Hewlett-Packard * Hightrack Computer Technik Hitachi * Hokushin * Hyosung Computer * Ibis Systems * IBM * International Memories Irwin International * ISS/Univac * Josephine County Technology * Kalok * Kennedy Company * Kovo * Kyocera * LaPine Technology * Lexitron * Magnum Technology Magtron * Matsushita Com. Ind. * Maxtor * Megavault * Memorex * Memory Systems MFM Technology * Micro Peripherals * Microscience International * Micro Storage Microcomputer Systems * Microdata * Micropolis * Miltope * Miniscribe * Mitsubishi Electric * Mitsumi Electri * NEC * New World Computer * Newbury Data * Nippon Electric Industry * Nippon Peripherals, Ltd. * Nippon Systemhouse * Nipponcoinco * Nixdorf Computer * Northern Telecom * Ohio Scientific * Okidat * Olivetti * Otari Electric Peripheral Technology * Perkin Elmer * PerSci * Pertec Computer * Philips Data Systems Plus Development * PrairieTek * Priam * Qume * Quantum * Ricoh * Rodime * ROM-CD Rotating Memory Systems * Sagem * Samsung Electronics * Seagate Technology * Seiko Epson * Shinwa Digital Industry * Shugart Associates * Siemens * SLI Industries * Sony Sord Computer * Sperry * Storage Technology * SyQuest Technology * Tandon * Teac Tecstor * Texas Instruments * 3M * Tokico * Tokyo Electric * Toshiba * Toyo Soda * Tulin Unisys * Vermont Research * Vertex * Victro Company of Japan * Western Dynex * Xebec Corporation * YE Data

Table 4

Disk Drive Industry 2004 Summary



GS Magicstor

Hitachi GST





Western Digital

Table 5
Table 1: Disk drive comparisons

 1956 2003

Manufacturer IBM Seagate

Model 350-1 7200.7

Capacity (MB) 4.4 MB 200 GB

Disk Size 24 in. 3.5 in.

No. Disks 50 3

RPM 1,200 7,200

Bit Density (BPI) 105 667,000

Track Density (TPI) 20 98,000

Areal Density (BPI) 2,100 63.36 billion

Access Time (msec.) 600 8.5

Table 2: History of disk drive price per MB

Year Notes Overall $per MB

1965 (2311 Disk Drive) $2,057.61

1971 (3330 Disk Drive) $300.00

1988 $11.54

1990 $6.86

1993 $1.46

1995 $0.33

1998 $0.046

2000 $0.018

2003 $0.005

Source: Disk/Trend Industry Data

Tom Coughlin, president of Coughlin Associates, has been in the data storage industry for over 20 years.

Dennis Waid, president of Peripheral. Research, has 30 years experience in data storage and has published numerous articles and reports on the industry/trends.

Jim Porter is president of DISK/TREND and a well-known analyst of the disk drive industry as well as consultant to data storage manufacturers.
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Title Annotation:Golden Anniversary of HDD
Author:Porter, Jim
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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