Storage-n-Harddrives. Where are we and where are we going?

Grab a fifth or your favorite 70 proof or higher beverage and read on

iconRecently hard drives and the storage industry in general has been a tough thing to write about, because frankly, nobody really cares!  It’s much more fun and exciting to get caught up in the hype surrounding the latest multi-core CPUs running at orgasmic clock speeds, or exotic video cards that need their own power reactors but have enough FLOPs under the hood to calculate the single precision meaning of life.  In fact the only time we give our trusty storage things a second thought (and exhaust our dictionaries of naughty words) is when they die and take our data along with them.  Well, to help remedy this journalistic conundrum, we’ve developed a drinking game to aid in your consumption of this article.  Every time you see a storage related suffix (MB, GB, TB, etc.) you take a shot.  Ready?  Good, because you’re up to three already.


It is truly amazing how far we have come since the inception of the first hard drive.  The IBM 305 RAMAC’s “350 Disk System” introduced the world to spinning magnetic storage on September 13, 1956 offering businesses a way to store an insane 5MB of accounting data in a ‘tiny’ drum (occupying about 1.5 cubic meters of space) that contained 50 – 24″ spinning platters.  24 years later in 1980, Seagate shrunk the magnetic hard drive to fit 5MB of data into only two 5.25″ drive bays, which enabled consumer adoption in microcomputers.  30 years past that now, we have truly tiny 2.5″ drives that can hold 1TB of data (200,000 times the RAMAC/Seagate), and 3.5″ drives that can double that.  The IBM 350 Disk System marked the beginning of a paradigm shift that would result in most computers and PC’s using hard drives instead of sequential tape or punch card storage years later.  Similarly, we are in the midst of our own paradigm shift as SSD’s are finally gaining traction in the market, and have become large and economical enough to be a true option worth considering when building a modern computer.

Even though magnetic hard drives were introduced in 1956, it wasn’t until the mid to late 80’s that they were truly a ubiquitous component for most computers being used and sold (We’ll call it 1987 for our purposes, as that was the year the first Macintosh systems were released with internal hard drives.)  That’s a 31 year delta between introduction and mass adoption.  While SSD’s were also being researched and developed back in the late 50’s as well, they were largely shelved as magnetic drum storage took center stage and had an insurmountable price/capacity ratio at the time.  Around 1978 however interest in SSD’s resurfaced and two companies; Texas Memory Systems, and StorageTek released the first commercially viable SSD’s for use in proprietary corporate and government systems touting up to 16KB storage capacities.  If you do the math, that was 32 years ago which means that SSDs are largely following the same delta between the first rudimentary hard drives to mass commercialization.

The above numbers are something of an over-simplification however, as there is a distinct difference between the transition from rocks and chisels (or whatever they used back in the day) to magnetic disk storage, and our current transition away from magnetic disk storage to solid state memory based drives.  That being said, there are some striking similarities too; as the “glass-half-empty” types that we are let’s start with the bad news first.

The distinct difference alluded to is the ubiquitous, random access storage we are spoiled with today.  We don’t even think about it anymore as we blissfully click away on Facebook profiles, Flickr albums, and SemiAccurate articles (right?), but none of this would have been remotely possible without some form of random access storage.  Imagine if S|A were run on a server using tape based storage.  Every time you clicked on a link to a different part of the site, Charlie would be forced to spring into action finding the appropriate reel containing the page you want to read, queue it up to the correct starting spot and hit play. While such a system would certainly fun to watch, it is not a good way to do things.  Being able to almost instantly access any random part of the storage device was a game changer, and it is something we have taken for granted for a long time.  Because both SSD’s and spinny-platter-based-drives offer the same functionality, just using different technologies to get the job done, the change is less revolutionary, and more evolutionary which means the adoption time table will be dependent on the merits of speed, capacity, and money.

Currently the most common metric for measuring price versus capacity is GB per dollar (or your local currency of record.)  Current cheap 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB drives have ratios of about $0.18, $0.11, $0.07, and $0.055 per GB respectively.  In contrast cheap 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB SSD’s have ratios of about $2.03, $2.81, and $3.10 per GB respectively.   There are obviously huge price gaps that need to be overcome before SSD’s can compete with traditional magnetic storage on a dollar for dollar footing.  Also notice that price per GB in SSD’s is rising while traditional hard drives see rather dramatic drops as capacity grows.  Even more economical 30 and 40 GB SSD drives that can be readily purchased for at or under $100 still carry with them a cost per GB of about $3.  Drives at this level of the market are seeing some success however as “application boosters” since they do offer superior access speeds, application load times, and raw read/write speeds compared to most of their magnetic brethren.   However, the capacity you are forced to give up makes it a tough sell for many builders on a budget that can get 1TB of reasonably quick magnetic storage for the same price or less than a 30GB SSD.  (If you’re still drinking/conscious after this paragraph, we salute you.  GB.)

All that cost per gigabyte data may seem rather damning for the SSD, however they do offer one compelling feature lightly touched on above… SPEED!  In most cases an SSD can breathe new life into an otherwise anemic computer.  If you don’t edit video, or have a massive pr0…err… video collection that needs to reside on your hard drive, a smallish 128GB or so SSD could dramatically improve the application load times and your mental perception of “snappiness” (and perception of speed counts for a LOT more than people give it credit for if you’re actually using the computer.)    Current mainstream drives typically advertise read write speeds around 200MB/s (read) and 100-150MB/s (write) whereas a nice Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB drive has average read/write speeds around 93MB/s.  That’s a pretty good jump, and more importantly access times are near instantaneous on SSDs while mechanical hard drive takes close to 13 milliseconds to move the read/write head to the proper spot on the disk, which is one of the main reasons applications and OSs load quicker on SSDs.

This is was not supposed to be a technical article comparing hard drives as there are many web sites that have performed in depth analyses on both types of drives and published results, but rather a means of looking into the near future and determining when your next Wal-Mart special $500 PC could contain a usable (meaning spacious) SSD drive instead of a mechanical throwback to the 1950s.  The question you currently have to ask yourself when purchasing a storage device is “Is the capacity I lose worth the increase in speed offered by the SSD option?”  While that trade off is certainly worth it for a select group of users today, the masses of people still demand the one with the bigger GeeBee’s and will continue to do so for quite some time as hard drive manufacturers are able to create larger and larger drives and keep them priced substantially less than competing SSD offerings.

The writing is on the wall, SSDs are here to stay.  Major hard drive manufacturers are acknowledging this with players like Western Digital releasing their own line of full-blown SSD products recently, and Seagate playing the middle ground by gluing small and cheap SSDs to the undersides of magnetic drives to try and give users the best of both worlds.  If 512GB SSDs can come down to the price of current 128GB SSD’s ($200-$250 USD) the price/performance ratio the drives offer will be close enough to the “have your capacity cake and eat it too” point that many more OEMs and end users will opt to install them in their consumer oriented computer systems rather than relegating them to the niche high end crowd.  Currently 512GB drives retail for over $1000 depending on the vintage, and must come down in price by 75% to make this dream a reality.

This dream could take a while to be fully realized however, as flash memory is currently a capacity constrained industry.  Companies like Apple, and HTC are buying up flash memory like there’s no tomorrow, and many more players are entering the SSD market and snapping up inventory along the way.  In the next several years, the big NAND flash companies like Samsung, and Toshiba/Sandisk will have new fabs coming online to increase supply a bit, and the continuous shrinkage of the silicon gates used in the chips will help increase capacity and lower prices, but for the next couple of years mechanical hard drives will remain the storage medium of choice for the vast majority of PCs.  The one thing SSDs have going for them is the competition offered by the number of new companies playing the storage game.  Competition invariably leads to better, faster, and cheaper products, so more of it may help accelerate the transition period.

HDD vs Capacity over time

According to the nice graph above if hard drive capacity continues growing at the same historical pace, we’ll be able to purchase 10TB hard drives some time in the year 2014, (and that’s not too far away.)  This is about the same timeframe that SSD’s should fully come into their own as well. More production capacity should be online (at smaller process nodes), many more of the bugs and problems with current SSDs will have been ironed out in both software and hardware, and more importantly the prices for usable capacities should have fallen to more reasonable levels by then.  The question at that time will still remain, “Do I want to be able to store 10TB of crap, or access 512GB-1TB of crap REALLY fast?”, but the cost/benefit analysis will leaning more heavily in favor of SSDs in mainstream systems by then.

P.S.  If you’ve been playing our game and are still able to read this… you’ve cheated.  For shame. S|A


Updated: Phantom missing first paragraph came back from the dead and has been added.  Enjoy.

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