Hard Drive Makers Get No Respect

Reporter's Notebook: At the Diskcon conference, storage manufacturers look for answers as to what will go into making the next-generation hard disk drive. The mechanisms are getting harder and more expensive to produce as the pressure to reduce pri

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—While busy celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invention of the hard disk drive, storage makers are looking toward the future at Diskcon USA. While technological progress looks steady for the short term, getting through the next 50 years may be a tougher climb, warned disk drive industry executives here.

This annual conference of the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association is a gathering of drive makers, component vendors and suppliers of related production machinery and services such as testing equipment, robotics and clean room solutions. The panels span drive technology innovations, market directions and the supply chain for the drive business.

Much of first-day discussion involved the ways to continue the growth of storage capacity, called areal density, or the number of bits of data that can be packed on a disk platter. It is one of the perennial hot topics for this storage confab.

In his keynote address on Sept. 13, Seagate Technology Chief Technology Officer Mark Kryder said the industry has made significant progress in implementing perpendicular recording technology in drive lines. Unlike many past disk transitions, which had tweaked this or that component, perpendicular recording required changes to almost the entire head mechanism.

Yet, even as manufacturers are settling into ramping up the process for perpendicular recording drives, the makers see the density limits looming for the technology in the early part of the next decade.

"Were getting to the limit at this point at what is achievable with perpendicular recording. This means, yes, we just brought in and introduced perpendicular recording at around 130 to 140G bits per square inch and weve got a factor of 5 of 6 in areal density that we can achieve going forward. After that, we will need something else," Kryder said.

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There are two technologies that speakers said may have the juice to carry drive capacities forward: adding heat and patterned media.

Called HAMR (heat-assisted magnetic recording) by Seagate and TAR (thermally assisted recording) by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, the heating method adds a tiny laser beam in the head assembly to momentarily heat up the places where data will be written. This improves reading efficiency and thus allows more density.


Kryder said this wasnt a huge transition for manufacturers and would use much of the current perpendicular recording technology.

The other major approach is dubbed Bit Patterned Media and uses lithographic techniques to more accurately separate the bits on the platter. The bits could even be isolated by the grid technology.

However, there are many challenges to this approach that will require advances in lithography and sensing technology, he said.

Still, Kryder and other storage executives admitted that their companies will need to make a decision on which direction to take fairly soon. Developing the technologies, putting them into production and testing the products takes years.

In addition, the capital investment required for these next-generation technologies, the increasing demand for commoditization of new storage and consolidation in the industry are all familiar concerns, attendees mentioned. Some offered suggestions, too.

Pointing to experience in the semiconductor industry, Edward Braun, chairman and CEO of equipment vendor Veeco, suggested greater sharing of IP and development costs between vendors and the supply chain.

"For a $30 billion hard drive industry, the amount of [capital expenditure] required is around 10 percent. Not quite as expensive as semiconductors but close in its concentration. ... One of the learned lessons from Intel and Sematech and the equipment industry in general is that the collaboration of the device companies and equipment companies was more sophisticated than storage companies are today," he said.

How to balance this risk with cost demands is very difficult, the executives said in panel discussions. Unlike the semiconductor industry where new products can be sold at a premium for quite a while, computer system vendors keep demanding that storage products quickly enter a commodity price point. It is increasingly difficult for storage makers to recoup climbing development and manufacturing costs when drive prices keep sliding.

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James Chirico, Seagate executive vice president for global disk storage operations, pointed to potential disruptions in the supply chain from consolidation in the storage industry, continuing pressure from system and device vendors for cost reductions, and market uncertainty. He said the shakeout following Seagates purchase of Maxtor has yet to be fully felt by suppliers; he also expects several more buyouts in the coming year or two.

"Even though weve had a successful 50 years, its going to be very challenging for all of us over the next one to three years," he observed.

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