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Rival disk-drive tech to race against flash

Posted: 16 Nov 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:disk drive? flash? Rick Merritt?

The disk-drive industry stands at a difficult double crossroads, a place where both its enabling technology and its market drivers are shifting.

Even as they navigate the transition to perpendicular recording, drive makers must choose a next-generation technology in 2007 if they are to maintain their 40 percent annual capacity growth and fend off the competition from flash memory. But industry leaders Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (formerly the IBM disk drive division) and Seagate Technology Inc. are divided on the way forward, with Seagate leaning toward thermal recording heads and Hitachi favoring patterned media.

The next-generation technology, whichever one it turns out to be, could require historic levels of investment. That's especially worrisome because drive makers are poised for still more consolidation under business conditions that are both difficult and uncertain.

"We face more-complex engineering problems with the next generation than ever before, at a time when we are struggling with costs, so it's difficult to make the investment," said A. Currie Munce, VP of research at Hitachi Global Storage.

PC makers, still the biggest buyers of drives, are hammering on costs harder than ever. Consumer electronics companies, forecast to become the primary users of drives by 2009, are almost equally cost-conscious and even harder to forecast.

"We are really at an inflection point in this industry," said James Chirico Jr., executive VP of manufacturing operations at Seagate. "If I had to sum up the industry for the next 12 to 24 months in a word, it is 'uncertainty.' "

PC makers bought about 84 percent of all hard disks in 2002. But they will buy only about 61 percent this year and an estimated 46 percent in 2009, as new consumer applications continue to grow and drive demand. For example, the first terabyte drive, expected in early 2007, will probably be a 3.5-inch product aimed at high-definition DVRs.

"Companies like Seagate used to have about six major products, two for each market categorydesktops, notebooks and servers. Now we have 42," said Mark Kryder, Seagate's CTO. "It really strains our resources to deliver that breadth."

Seagate and Hitachi agree that thermal recording heads and patterned media are on the horizon and that they must decide within a year which to pursue first. But that's where the consensus ends between these players, each of which owns all the internal head and media operations to do it alone if needed.

Seagate thinks its Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) technology, already under development with a government grant, is the next best step. It requires a laser heat source to raise the temperature of a tiny recording spot on the disk by several hundred degrees for perhaps 150ps. HAMR entails new recording heads and waveguides to align optical and magnetic focal areas.

Patterned media (left) require a new media nanoimprint system, while heat-assisted recording (right) requires new heads, materials and optical heat source.

By contrast, bit-patterned media could require 12.5nm lithography, which won't be available in the next decade.

But Hitachi's Munce sees patterned media as a better choice for a next step. The company is investigating a nanoimprinting technique for mechanically pressing chargeable spots in a disk, an approach shown in university research to yield features as small as 5nm, he said. The process still must prove itself capable of meeting the cost, throughput and yield requirements of mass-market disks.

Munce believes Seagate's HAMR process is more risky because HAMR's use of both heat and magnetism introduces essentially a new physics. That means it would require new materials and manufacturing processes for the heads, in addition to the new optical technology.

Either technology could push drives to an areal density of more than 1Tbit/inch2. And both will be required in concert to get to 50Tbits/inch2 and beyond. The only question is which to pursue first.

Unity play?
Seagate and Hitachi could travel separate paths, which would make for an exciting race of technologies. But the industry might be better served by an agreement on one direction that pushes other players into alignment and spreads out investments more broadly.

"We can't afford to commercialize both techniques in parallel," Munce said, speaking about Hitachi's resources. "Ultimately, I think Seagate will swing their ship around."

Time is growing short. The perpendicular recording just now emerging in today's drives will run out of gas somewhere between 500Gbits/inch2 and 1Tbit/inch2, experts estimate. At a density growth rate of 40 percent a year, that means a new technique will need to start shipping as early as 2010, and it takes about three years to transfer research into volume manufacturing.

"We are very close to a decision on what we have to do for the next generation," said Seagate's Kryder.

"If we want to stay ahead of flash, we have to have the next technology ready when perpendicular runs out of gas. We can't afford not to be ready," added Munce.

While the technology leaders debate, the remaining drive makers, and independent head and media vendors are stuck in a wait-and-see mode. "No one is driving them," said Kryder.

No. 2 drive maker Western Digital has adopted a fast-follower strategy. Others note that the drive industry, unlike its big brother the semiconductor business, is too small to fund development of an industry road map. In any case, most drive makers are still focused on their transition from longitudinal to perpendicular recording, which is forcing changes in heads, media and other parts of the drive.

One component supplier said there are still changes in the works in perpendicular heads to better trap renegade particles and thus raise drive reliability. A media vendor predicted the transition to perpendicular recording will stretch out over the next couple of years.

WD started shipping its first perpendicular drives just two months ago. So far, WD is using the technology only on its notebook drives.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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