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The future of hard drives: diversification.

The recent explosion of widely varying applications that rely on hard disk drives has led to the greatest diversification in hard drive design in the history of the industry. Initially, the primary challenge was to scale the technology. More recently, as new consumer applications found value in hard-drive storage, the challenge was in leveraging existing technology. Moving forward, the primary challenge is to customize the technology to fit more and more specific and divergent application needs.

What has developed is a new way of thinking about storage and a new way of designing hard drives. Design begins with how the customer will use the storage. Which factors are most important--capacity and price? What about form factor, reliability, scalability, workload and performance? Or data integrity, power consumption, system architecture and interface? And while the emergence of specialized design is relatively recent in the hard-drive industry, it does not appear to be a temporary phenomenon--it's likely to continue as more new markets discover ways to take advantage of the unique capabilities and value of hard drives.

Today, an incredible variety of hard drives range in capacity from 1GB to 500GB and in physical size from 1 inch up to 3.5 inches. They

can serve applications ranging from handheld music players to digital video recorders, game consoles and home servers, printers and copiers, PCs, notebook computers, near-line servers, networked corporate data centers and more. Drives may feature SATA, SAS, or Fibre Channel interfaces or external USB or FireWire connections, and they offer a dizzying variety of spindle speeds: 3,600-rpm, 4,200-rpm, 5,400-rpm, 7,200-rpm, 10,000-rpm and 15,000-rpm.

From a broad list of key technologies that impel the design of a hard drive, the capabilities that one application demands can differ greatly with the requirements of another application. While certain enterprise server applications require very high input-output-per-second (IOPS) within a scalable rack infrastructure, others may need very high capacities or lower up-front costs. Where a handheld music device must be very light, very rugged and consume little power, an audio/video server farm may require massive streaming throughput and data availability above all. Thus, as the hard-drive industry serves more and more divergent application needs, it must design a more divergent set of products--each product designed to closely meet the needs of its target application.

The market today is rife with examples of new hard-drive designs impelled by new applications requirements.

Notebook PC Storage

New applications for notebook computers, both at the office and home, are driving industry-wide adoption of these portable systems as a replacement to desktop computers. With the performance and capacity gap between notebook and desktop drives diminishing, PC users are transitioning to notebook computers and technology is evolving to accommodate their needs.

In notebook PC storage, the diversification of hard-drive technology is clear. As users demand new, more robust applications, designers and manufacturers must revamp their existing products, focusing on performance, power management, capacity, acoustics and smaller form-factor. Hard-drive designers have responded with a move in recent years from one to three available spindle speeds, from one to two available form factors, and with an increased focus on higher available notebook hard-drive capacities and additional onboard cache, further diversifying the hard drives now available for the notebook market.

Notebook computers endure an entirely different type of lifecycle: they get bumped, nudged, opened, closed and powered-on multiple times each day. So disk drive designers have focused on increasing resistance to shock and developing specialized systems to reduce the incidence of head slap.

Enterprise Storage

Meanwhile, driven by a trend in the enterprise to consolidate storage arrays, rack servers and blade servers, we now have the first 2.5-inch hard drives for enterprise applications. The combination of 10,000-rpm performance, small footprint and support of current and future data transfer standards generates multiple benefits, including higher IOPS performance and support for consolidation and scalability. The 2.5-inch size permits three or four more drives in a 1U rack compared with traditional 3.5-inch drives. The drives also produce faster seek times, which is especially beneficial when applications must read and write a myriad of small files. A 2U-rack with these new drives will outperform today's common 3U rack storage array by 150% on an IOPS-per-U basis, while providing equal or greater storage capacity.

In addition to boosting performance, the 2.5-inch enterprise drives increase ROI by facilitating consolidation and management. Performance and capacity can be enhanced without adding more racks or using more data-center floor space. Manageability is easier, since there are fewer servers or arrays in potentially fewer locations. With less cabling and fewer fabric switches, UPSs and rack cabinets, problems are easier to diagnose. Mirroring is simpler, and redundancy is more affordable.

On the other end of the enterprise spectrum, a new class of storage has risen to fill the gap between primary and archive storage. Applications include: disc-to-disc backup/storage recovery, virtual tape backup/storage recovery, fixed content-addressed storage for image and document management. The foundation of this near-line storage is high capacity, low cost per gigabyte, reliable disc drives with Fibre Channel or Serial ATA interfaces. Entirely new drives, including the first one-half terabyte hard drives, have been designed to provide cost-effective, tiered storage solutions to manage data based on response and availability requirements, at lower overall cost compared to traditional tape systems

Consumer Electronics Storage

In the fast-growing consumer electronics market, the diversity is greatest of all, with an incredible panoply of drives offered for new applications--from tiny handheld entertainment devices to television set-top boxes, game consoles, automobile navigation and media-rich mobile phones.

Storage has become crucial to the growing power of handheld consumer electronics devices, enabling these devices to support more functions and applications and to store more content.

Today, hard drives are replacing flash memory in portable music players and are also a viable storage alternative for digital cameras. But not any hard drive can be put into a portable handheld device. The drive must be designed to withstand the environment to which portable devices are often exposed; for example, an MP3 player strapped onto a jogger can skip because of vibrations caused by the jogger's motion. The storage also must support consumers' need for higher capacities to store data-rich multimedia files--at an affordable price.

Compared to flash memory, a 1-inch hard drive delivers a much lower cost per megabyte (up to 10 times the capacity at similar price points) making it a very cost-effective storage alternative. Today, one-inch hard drives are available in sizes from 1GB up to 5GB. For users with large media libraries and for those who encode files at high-bit rates, these high-capacity drives are ideal.

In another important consumer market, the needs of consumers in their living rooms are affecting the design of hard drives. Home entertainment is going through a new evolution, thanks to the digital video recorder (DVR). From standalone recorders to the set-top boxes offered by cable companies, the DVR is changing the way people watch TV. And the major enabler of this new market is the hard-disc drive. Today, hard drives are being designed especially for DVRs, taking into account special requirements for streaming media, power usage and digital content protection. They're being designed to give consumers, manufacturers and content providers the price, performance and features they need.

For example, it is essential that manufacturers design DVRs with video quality in mind to prevent inconsistent streaming, degraded pictures and missing frames. Only a hard drive with features designed for streaming video can provide consumers with the high-quality video they expect. Some DVR hard drives today are optimized to ensure high-quality video streaming by allowing manufacturers to control the data flow and to maximize the number of streams delivered by a DVR application.

Also critical to the needs of this market are high capacities, low power consumption, and silent operation. The DVR has driven up the demand for high capacities so that today drives are available with up to 400GB--which can record up to 400 hours of standard TV and more than 40 hours of high-definition video. Some hard-drive models now provide controls to limit drive power consumption so DVR manufacturers can control the system's power budget at startup--a crucial feature for devices that use smaller power supplies than the PC world. Additional controls can sense when a system's operating temperature is exceeding reliable norms, and can adjust the power consumption to help make the DVR more reliable. In many homes, DVRs are located in the bedroom, and most DVRs operate day and night, recording content or downloading middle-ware and programming updates from content providers and DVR makers--so hard drives in DVRs must be quiet. Whereas PC drives are optimized for access speed, which increases drive noise, access times on DVRs drives are not critical. So today hard-drive makers have designed in quiet modes of operation to address this need, while optimizing performance for applications such as high-definition streaming.

Diversification: What Does it Mean for the Industry?

With a growing interest in the unique capabilities hard drives offer, we can expect this diversification in hard-drive products to continue as today's new markets mature, and as entirely new applications for hard drives are considered and developed. Hard drives smaller than 1 inch are already in the works, brand new interfaces are being considered to match specific challenges in new markets, and scores of companies are working on previously unimaginable ways to integrate hard drives into new applications.

The storage industry must be prepared to deliver more specifically designed products to match the needs of each new market. To do that, researchers must continue to invest to increase areal density, to facilitate a variety of design features including higher performance, reduced cost per gigabyte, physically smaller hard drives, and improved reliability due to fewer discs and heads.

Hard-drive developers also need to continue to connect with new customers to understand their specialized needs. They must find new ways, for example, to ensure data security to protect private data on a networked drive or prevent piracy of copyrighted content, to reduce hard drive acoustics for personal and in-home devices, to reduce power draw, to increase reliability and ruggedness, to enhance specific kinds of performance for specific kinds of data use.

Additionally, hard-drive makers must know how to efficiently apply the essential building blocks of hard drive design (or their basic intellectual property) in new and divergent products not yet imagined today. And hard-drive manufacturing lines need to be more flexible than ever as they churn out an ever more varied group of products with reliability.

The Role of the System Builder

Given this landscape of continuing diversification of applications, technologies and solutions, what do system builders need to do to meet the needs of shifting, growing opportunities?

Solution providers, system builders and resellers can be expected to offer a greater variety of products to serve these new opportunities. And to do that, they need to make themselves more aware of application and market trends, and equally aware of the divergent technological capabilities of the storage products available to them.

Solution providers should expect an expanding range of products optimized for different market segments. Specialization is the rule. They need to continue to develop greater expertise about the technology differences between hard drives. They should study the wide variety of factors that impel hard drive design--application requirements, technology requirements and design constraints--to gain a clear understanding of why a particular hard drive works most effectively in each application. With this knowledge, a solution provider will be equipped to understand the nuance of each customer's specific need, and to foresee market shifts early enough to develop new solutions as these opportunities emerge.

Solution providers should also partner closely with the design experts within the storage industry. Hard-drive makers will increasingly look to partner with system builders, and system builders should take advantage of technology providers' in-house co-design services, attend educational seminars that vendors offer, and use vendors' demonstration product programs to get familiar with changing technologies and how to integrate them.

The future of hard drives is all about diversification. The proliferation of a greater diversity of applications that use hard drives means that there will be more opportunities for solution providers who know storage. But to make the most of those opportunities, the whole of the storage technology industry--hard drive makers and solution providers alike--must make sure it knows these new customers, and how to meet their unique requirements.

John Paulsen is senior manager, product communications, at Seagate Technology (Scotts Valley, CA)
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Title Annotation:Storage Networking
Author:Paulsen, John
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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