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Tbyte drive, notebook flash set HDD milestones

Posted: 16 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:HDD? terabyte drive? solid-state drive? SSD? Tbyte?

Hitachi Global Storage Technologies announced last month its first terabyte drive while SanDisk Corp. formally entered the notebook market with a 32Gbyte flash-based solid-state drive.

Neither product is expected to shake up business in the $30 billion sector, but both point to long-term transitions that could make or break fortunes in mass storage.

Hitachi's achievement of packing a terabyte in a 3.5-inch hard drive is part of the industry's broader shift to perpendicular from longitudinal recording. That generational change is proceeding well for most players, with market leader Seagate Technology well ahead of the pack and expected to leap ahead of Hitachi's achievement soon.

SanDisk did not disclose the price tag for its flash drive, but admitted it would be steep, a decision that will limit its uptake. But the announcement marks the beginning of a developing market many are watching closely.

Flash has already replaced HDDs in many high-volume MP3 players. That fact caught the industry's attention when Apple Computer announced its flash-based iPod Nano and stopped producing its hard-drive-based iPod Mini.

SanDisk's move is a sign that a similar shift could happen for a segment of the notebook market, according to some. In a nod to that possibility, market watcher International Data Corp. is about to hire its first analyst to focus on flash drives.

Flash drives provide higher performance, use less power and are more rugged than rotating-disk storage. There is some concern, however, that they may wear out sooner than hard drives.

Hard disks typically last about 5 years, based on failures of their mechanical parts. Flash chips could wear out sooner, based on limited numbers of read/write cycles.

Costly flash
Although SanDisk did not announce pricing for its 32Gbyte, 1.8-inch flash drive, it did say that end users would pay a premium on the resulting notebook of about $600. The typical notebook uses an 80Gbyte, 2.5-inch drive that costs a PC maker about $60.

"Today you are paying a pretty high premium for the benefits of flash in a notebook," said John Rydning, a hard-disk analyst for IDC who covers flash drives on a part-time basis. Less than 5 percent of today's notebooks use the small, 1.8-inch drives, he added.

More flash competitors and the rise of multilevel flash are helping accelerate the fall of flash prices, however.

SanDisk doesn't see its flash notebook drives creating a big stir in 2007. But the company is preparing the way to take a larger slice of the pie.

Later this year, SanDisk plans to roll out 64Gbyte and perhaps 128Gbyte drives as well as lower-cost models in the more traditional 2.5-inch form factor. The initial 32Gbyte drive uses a parallel ATA interface and single-bit-per-cell flash. Future models will use serial ATA and SanDisk's 2bit-per-cell flash, which could lower costs "a few tens of percentage points," a SanDisk spokesman said.

SanDisk did not announce any OEM design wins for the notebook drive, but said it should have design wins to announce by June. The first product is due to ship before April.

Hitachi's terabyte drives are its first 3.5-inch drives to use perpendicular recording. The company initially applied the new recording technique to the 2.5-inch notebook drives that are its bread and butter.

Hitachi will ship a retail model of the terabyte drive for $399 before April. Still in testing are a consumer version for digital video recorders (DVRs) and an enterprise version for storage arrays that use most of today's high-capacity drives. Both are set to ship by June.

While Hitachi claims a lead in hitting the terabyte milestone, its dirty little secret is that it is using five platters. Hitachi also used five platters in the first rev of its previous high-end drive, a 500Gbyte model. The company later shrunk the 500Gbyte drive to just three platters.

Seagate, by contrast, has a 750Gbyte drive that uses longitudinal recording and just four platters. The company is expected to come out soon with a terabyte version using perpendicular recording.

"Hitachi is rushing to market with a relatively expensive terabyte drive," said Krishna Chander, hard-drive analyst for market watcher iSuppli Corp. "This is definitely not a very cost-efficient product. That will come with the three- and four-platter versions."

Hitachi currently trails Seagate and Western Digital in the DVR market, one of the target areas for the terabyte drives. The company has an edge in high-capacity DVRs bought by consumers at retail, but that's a small part of the DVR market, said IDC's Rydning.

"Hitachi will continue to do well in its niche, but not gain share with the product," he said.

Stable transition
Overall, the industry is proceeding at a stately but stable pace through the transition to perpendicular recording. IDC estimates that just 5 percent of all drives shipped in 2006 used perpendicular recording. That should rise to 25 percent in 2007 and more than 50 percent in 2008, IDC projects.

In Q3 2006, iSuppli estimates, about 5 percent of all hard drives shipped used perpendicular recording. Seagate beat the crowd: About 10 percent of the drives it shipped that quarter used perpendicular recording.

"Each supplier is converting its product line to perpendicular recording at a different rate, with Seagate expected to lead with about 50 percent of its shipments using the technology in Q4 and 75 percent for all of 2007," wrote Chander in a research note.

The technology lead is one factor in Seagate's ongoing dominance of the sector. It "outgrew the market with a 16.4 percent increase in unit shipments compared to Q2. In comparison, global hard-drive shipments increased by only 15.7 percent during the same period," wrote Chander.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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