Hard Disk Makers Hope for a Break

Storage vendors and analysts dissected the market and new technology for hard drives at last week's DiskCon conference in San Jose, Calif. Many seek a slowing of the race for higher disk capacities.

Over the past decade, hard disk manufacturers have kept up a breakneck pace of innovation, increasing capacity and performance. At the same time, their profits have dwindled. At last weeks DiskCON USA 2003 conference in San Jose, Calif., storage executives expressed hope that this progress will slow, bringing a rise in margins.

This annual gathering of the hard drive industry—longtimers debated whether it was the 17th or the 18th year—offered a mix of technical and market-analysis sessions. Alongside sessions covering advances in head technology and coatings for platters, attendees heard sessions on changing requirements for enterprise drives as well as new markets such as automotive information systems and new portable capacities.

Here are some pieces of sessions that caught my imagination:

  • The buzz in disk technology is perpendicular recording, and some expect it to arrive in drives a couple of years hence. By placing the magnetic data bits in a different (er, perpendicular)orientation, drive capacities can rise to more than twice the current levels; one technical session described new design tweaks that will support capacities upwards of 240 Gbits per square inch. (For more information, see "Hard Drive Vendors Think Perpendicular.")

However, both panelists at the session said that (as was the case with past technology transitions) the current generation of parallel read-write designs should have additional life left in it. Drive manufacturers will likely use the familiar technology and delay the transition to perpendicular recording for at least another generation of hard drives, beyond 2006.

  • Weve all become accustomed to the rapid rise of hard disk capacity and performance. Over the past half a decade that rate has climbed at more than 100 percent a year, sometimes as high as 120 percent. Many speakers predicted (or hoped) that rate will slow.

Mark Miller, technology analyst at Hoefer & Arnett Inc. investment bank said a "Perfect Storm" hit the hard drive industry in 1998. This was when the usual cycle of production over-capacity combined with the maturation of the desktop PC market segment ("maturation" is industry-speak for reduced demand); the rise of inexpensive consumer PCs (with their equally low-margin drives); and the race between manufacturers for areal density, which was sparked by the introduction of an improved head technology. All of these factors lead to shortened life-cycles and low margins for drives. It also dropped the number of parts in a drive by half—driving some parts suppliers out of business.

Now, with consolidation hitting drive vendors and component suppliers, the pace should slow, letting manufacturers extend the life of a product line and thus make a bit more profit for a particular design and production run.

  • In contrast, analysts warned, the market for 2.5-inch drives holds the potential for another of the boom-and-bust cycles for which the storage industry is noted. According to John Donovan, vice president of TrendFOCUS Inc., a current shortage of notebook drives runs around 1 million units per quarter. In addition to notebooks, these drives are growing in popularity in applications such as printers.

Hard drive vendors are moving more of their design and manufacturing efforts toward this market as well as consumer storage. Seagate Technology Inc. this summer said it will offer 2.5-inch drives for notebooks, and Donovan said another vendor will make an announcement shortly. Another analyst said Maxtor Corp. and Western Digital Corp. could enter the market. (For more information, see "Seagate Reenters Mobile Disk Drive Market.")

When adding up the potential capacity of these manufacturers, Donovan said that the total could approach between 15 million and 20 million drives per quarter, when the actual demand is in the range of 11 million drives. "Supply and demand can flip quickly," he said. "We see them getting near 20 million units, in a market not prepared for that."

  • Finally, enterprise managers and storage system vendors may need to come to terms with the changing position of high-performance server drives in the hard disk industry. Vendors see many new opportunities in the consumer-electronics space rather than in the more mature server and desktop markets.

While the market for these applications is small today—some 5 percent of all hard disks slated to ship this year—IDC predicts the portion devoted to the consumer electronics segment will grow to 18 percent by 2007. And its a wide-open field using current 1.8-, 2.5- and 3.5-inch mechanisms (the latter because theyre cheap) as well as the new 1- and 0.8-inch disks.

Although the demand may be great, this trend toward consumer electronics holds its own share of difficulties.

"TV sets arent going to save the [hard disk] business," observed Mike Workman, president and CEO of SAN management vendor Pillar Data Systems. "The problem is that these consumer areas are even more cost-sensitive than PCs. A disk drive in every car would be great, but thats a tough environment."

A bumpy ride—like the storage industry.

Storage Center Editor David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.

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