Connecting the capacity dots

Announcements from Seagate, Western Digital contain clues to the future of hard drives

I considered going to this year's CES show, and finally decided not to. "You should go there, but just once," is the somewhat ominous advice I got from a friend. Maybe next year.

It's not that I don't want to face Las Vegas' craziness (once a year, I could handle), and I certainly like gadgets as much as the next guy, but if you're looking for enterprise storage products, there's not much to chew on at CES.

Which is not to say that there is nothing on storage at the show; in the twilight zone where consumer electronics and enterprise products intersect, you can occasionally find some tasty storage bites at CES.

For example, Seagate Technology this year announced a new 160GB Portable Hard Drive, defined in the press release as "the industry's first portable drive built with perpendicular recording, an innovative technology that Seagate has employed to deliver the market's highest capacity in a 2.5-inch form factor."

To buy one of these babies, you'll have to wait until February and be prepared to spend around $350. What really turned my head, however, is the last part of that excerpt; the 2.5-inch drives are also used in laptops, and Seagate had long ago predicted shipments of 160GB capacity drives (dubbed Momentus 5400.3) by this quarter.

Let me connect the dots: Based on the CES announcements, it's reasonable to assume that Seagate will soon begin shipping those Momentus laptop drives with 160GB capacity. Seagate may have already started shipments to major OEMs, and will probably make an official announcement on Momentus availability by the time you read this (or soon thereafter).

How did Seagate squeeze so much capacity into a 2.5" drive? The answer is perpendicular recording, a new technology that delivers larger densities per square inch by storing bits perpendicularly to the disk plate. The older approach, which is still largely used in many popular drives, stores bits horizontally on the disk plate.

According to Seagate, perpendicular technology can reach recording densities of 500 Gbpsi (gigabit per square inch) which should eventually make it possible to stash up to 2TB on a single 3.5" drive. The new 2.5" drives have a capacity of "only" 160GB, but pushing perpendicular recording to its limits will open them up to storing a half-terabyte of data on a single device.

The drive market has been growing quickly for Seagate. "We shipped almost 70 million 2.5-inch drives in 2005, a remarkable increase over the 50 million shipped the previous year," says Joni Clark, product marketing manager at Seagate.

"We also noticed that customers were looking for larger and larger drives, which is why we saw an opportunity to develop perpendicular recording on those models," Clark adds.

If figuring out Seagate's laptop drive plans required some deductive reasoning, by contrast Western Digital's pre-CES announcement was just plain simple to understand.

You may remember the company's line of Raptor drives, which are fast, 3.5" SATA devices emulating SCSI drives' performance. The new WD1500ADFD model expands the capacity of a single drive to 150GB while maintaining the same 10,000 rpm of previous devices and offering the same reliability and performance.

I learned from Western Digital that the new drive is already shipping and has an estimated retail price of about $300 -- well below the cost of similar SCSI units, as I determined with help from Froogle.

This announcement is important; drives with capacities of approximately 150GB are becoming very popular because they offer reasonably fast performance but improve on ratios such as a datacenter's capacity and power consumption per square foot. Western Digital's objective is to offer a similarly fast -- but more affordable -- SATA alternative to SCSI drives in the same capacity and RPM range.

If history repeats itself the strategy should work: A similar approach allowed Western Digital to create a unique and exclusive enterprise SATA drive segment out of nothing. Adding larger drives to the offering should facilitate further expansion of that space.

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