Storage

Hard drives are heading the way of floppies, but when?

Solid-state drives are making inroads as the default mass storage option in PCs. HP and Toshiba execs weigh in on when SSDs will finally overtake HDDs.

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A decade ago, 3.5-inch floppy disk drives stopped appearing as standard features in personal computers. Now, with the rise of solid-state drives, disposable memory cards, cloud storage, and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, the concept of traditional hard disk drives as standard options will probably be the next to end.

There's no doubt that it will happen, according to officials at Hewlett-Packard, which had the second-highest worldwide PC market share in 2015, and Toshiba, which was the third-ranking hard disk manufacturer. The question is, when?

HP and Toshiba officials both said the timing depends on when the capacity-to-cost ratio of solid-state drives (SSDs), which are very fast, can ever match that of hard disks, which are slower because they have moving parts. When that happens, then hard disks will join floppy disks, cassettes, paper tape, and punched cards in the proverbial bit bucket.

HP's Mike Nash, vice president of the personal systems division, observed that niche products such as high-end gaming rigs, many corporate PCs, high-end laptops, and low-end laptops such as Chromebooks are already largely shipping with SSDs, not HDDs, as their standard configurations.

That's true across the industry, not just from the Palo Alto, Calif. computing and printing giant. Still the majority of 2015's industry-wide sales of 288.7 million units, 18.2% of which are HP models, are just ordinary computers. Ever-growing file sizes in applications, operating systems, and multimedia are pushing the capacity increases at price points that SSDs can't currently match, Nash said.

"Do I think that in N years everything will be SSD instead of rotating? The answer is ultimately yes, the question is when," Nash said. "It comes down to price versus function. We have a very diverse set of customers, and each type represents a different demand curve," he noted.

"Over time I could absolutely imagine where things move to SSDs. There was a time when we switched to floppy drives, and then we switched to optical drives, and now it's on the cloud," Nash continued. However, "There are no plans to eliminate hard disk drives. For the foreseeable future there's enough volume. It's not on our roadmap for the products we're building in the next couple of years," he explained.

Toshiba's Cameron Brett, director of SSD product marketing, generally agreed with Nash that the capacity-to-cost ratio of SSDs will eventually equal that of hard disks, thereby making slower hard disk technology irrelevant. "I think the short answer is yes," he said. "It's just a matter of at what point and which segments it'll penetrate."

Samsung announced a massive 15-terabyte SSD two weeks ago, but that product is for enterprise storage, not personal computers. Officials declined to share its price. Meanwhile, hard drive technology isn't standing still, with substantial capacity and read-write speed increases expected this year from the commercialization of a technology called shingled magnetic recording.

(Hard drive rotation speed itself probably won't increase anytime soon due to power requirements. The current maximum speed is 15,000 revolutions per minute. Western Digital and others developed 20,000-rpm drives in the previous decade, but industry consensus held that solid-state drives were so much faster that investing in 20K hard disks made little sense.)

Component cost is a challenge even for newly-common SSDs. Scott Wright, director of disk drive marketing at Toshiba, said his PC manufacturer customers are trying to save every penny. "When I talk to my customers about that, by and large they're concerned about it — they're in a very competitive marketplace for their systems — so they need to pay attention to what it costs to build their systems and how they make money at different price bands," he said. "They can't really afford to be looking at cost-of-components that exceed that budget."

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About

Evan Koblentz began covering enterprise IT during the dot-com boom times of the late 1990s. He recently published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers".

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