Why hard drives haven’t disappeared (yet)

If flash memory has really replaced floppy disks in PCs, the latter have more reason than ever in data centers and other servers. Where the speed and access time are adequate and the storage/price ratio is incredible. At least for a while…

They’ve become invisible: your Christmas desktop, tablet, or smartphone doesn’t carry a traditional platter hard drive. Only external drives and other personal NAS dedicated to personal or professional backup are still relevant, with some exceptions for those who install machines and still like to have a “good big HDD” (HDD = hard disk, English abbreviation) on their lap. for). However, hard drives are far from dead, according to Rainer Kaese, manager of Toshiba’s European storage division. They are even still inevitable. “ It sold 258.9 million HDDs last year (in 2022, ed). Their total capacity is 1338 zettabytes, which is almost a third increase compared to 2020. HDDs have never represented such a combined storage capacity. Rainer Kaese wrote in an article published in Global Security Mag. A storage volume reading that is slightly different from the volume of units sold.

More storage capacity, stable volumes

The evolution of the sales volume of hard drives from 1976 to 2021 © Statista

If we read the hard disk sales statistics, after the peak in 2010, the market was in steady decline until 2020 at 650 million units. Since then, the volume of disks has remained stable at about 260 million units per year. Meanwhile, this media market, now huge and slow compared to flash memory, has been transformed. Aside from a few rare references still intended for the general public, hard drives have been removed from various consumer computer formats. After disappearing from Walkmans (remember the first iPod and other Archos!), they’ve been banished from laptops and towers. First in high-end configurations, and now in all entry-level machines. Flash memory with inexpensive modules and capacities (for example, 64 GB eMMC configurations). What keeps hard drives from breaking is the ideal balance between size, price, read/write speed and storage capacity. With a recurring market hungry for these arguments: data centers.

Cheaper than flash, faster than tape

3.5-inch format hard drives rotating at 7200 revolutions per minute have the first big advantage: they can store a lot of data. Many references exceed 10 TB, and we’re even seeing more than 20 TB capabilities coming. Space and power consumption are the most expensive data centers, making them even more attractive as manufacturers continue to cram more and more data into conventional HDDs. . SSD drives, which are much faster, do not reach this level of density at reasonable prices for the development of mass storage represented by cloud aggregation and data aggregation.

And compared to storage on magnetic tapes, as well as storage “dinosaurs”, the hard disk is faster. If the tape is offline, in long-lived archives, etc. Its mode of operation, which involves waiting for tapes to be loaded into the tape drive, makes it impossible to store frequently accessed data. This means that HDDs still have a bright future in data centers, NAS, and video surveillance systems, which are increasingly common in many countries.

Inevitable long-term extinction?

Magnetic player and cassette.  © Fujifilm
Magnetic player and cassette. © Fujifilm

Echoing Toshiba’s post, we brainstormed with our colleagues at Blocks and Files that if “classic” hard drives are guaranteed a near-to-mid-term future, their long-term survival is perhaps less certain. . The reason is that flash memory designers constantly play with the number of layers of their NAND (another name for flash) memory modules, which today reach 176 layers. If the capacity/price ratio is against them for now, this technology continues to drop in price.

Also read: The future of mass storage is written on magnetic tapes 20 times thinner than your hair (Jan 2022)

In addition, with more than a decade of steadily increasing sales volumes and capacities, R&D investments, as well as the ability to attract talent from flash champions, allow them to grow faster than the HDD world. An opinion shared by tape storage experts like those at IBM we met. Researchers and engineers tout not only tapes’ security, or lifespan—several decades, compared to three years to seven for a hard drive—but also their faster-growing storage capacity. Now showing 18 TB per cartridge and 45 TB in compressed format! – tapes can go up to 580 TB in ten years. A breakthrough that hard drives cannot provide.

Road map
The “guaranteed” roadmap for magnetic tape reaches at least 580 TB per tape, a storage capacity that currently seems out of reach for platter-based hard drives. © Fujifilm

Stuck between flash memory and magnetic tapes, hard drives survive thanks to data centers. However, in the absence of a major technological breakthrough, it may be pushed out of our digital world in the medium or long term.


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