Wanted: 40 trillion gigabytes of open storage, stat!

Hard drives: Dull but reliable

The workhorse hard drive will remain the dominant storage mechanism for the world's data into the foreseeable future. According to Gartner's John Monroe and Joseph Unsworth, in 2016 hard drives will still account for 97 percent of total drive sales, despite the penetration of SSDs into the desktop and laptop markets. Hard drives continue to lead SSDs in both capacity and competitive pricing, and will do so for the foreseeable future—this in spite of growing capacity and price reductions for flash drives.

Luckily, hard drive performance and capacity will continue to see improvements in the coming years, thanks to several new technologies on the horizon. Hitachi Global Storage Technologies recently announced helium-filled drives aimed at enterprise and cloud storage. These drives promise a 40 percent increase in drive capacity and a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency.

(See related: SSDs vs. hard drives vs. hybrids: Which storage tech is right for you?)

Helium has one-seventh the density of air. As such, the element can reduce the drag and turbulence between drive platters, which translates to more precise read/write head placement, and allows narrower tracks to be written and more disk platters to be placed inside a drive.

Hitachi hasn't commented on increases in areal density (that is, how many bits can be squeezed into a single square inch), but it has said that its new 3.5-inch helium-filled drives, scheduled for delivery sometime in 2013, will boast seven platters instead of the current five. This increase in disk platters—all thanks to helium—will give us that 40 percent capacity increase per drive.

Two technologies still under development could a deliver a tenfold or greater increase in areal density: The long promised (but yet to be commercialized) Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) and patterned media such as Self-Ordered Magnetic Arrays (SOMA).

HAMR uses current read/write technology in conjunction with a laser to heat the media. The heat is required to facilitate writing to disk-coating compounds such as iron/platinum alloys that are capable of greater areal density than today's compounds, but are less magnetically malleable until heated. Eight nanometer and even 3nm particle separations are envisioned. HAMR still remains in development, however, and we shouldn't expect to see anything deployed sooner than two years.

Where today's magnetic layers involve magnetic particles that can be oriented to represent data, in HAMR these particles are arranged rather chaotically. This makes them difficult to pack any tighter than they currently are. But patterned media, such as SOMA (a group of nanoparticles that can be induced to align in an ordered fashion), pack magnetic bits much tighter by eliminating the random shapes and spacing of the current technology. It all sounds great on paper, but deploying this technology en masse at an affordable price will be a challenge.

In terms of personal data storage, hybrid hard drives—which marry high-speed flash memory to traditional spinning discs—will likely make a greater impact on our lives than any fancy new technology cooked up in an R&D lab. Hybrid drives deliver the storage capacities of traditional hard drives along with some of the performance benefits of SSDs, but at only twice the price per gigabyte of standard hard drives.

Seagate is already in the hybrid drive game, and Toshiba and other drive manufacturers have recently weighed in with plans for hybrid drives. Toshiba sent samples of its 1TB and 750GB hybrid drives last fall to manufacturing partners. Toshiba expects 3 million of the hybrid drives to be produced by the end of 2014. However, unless the products can approach the tangible kick in performance delivered by SSDs, they may be relegated to being a stopgap solution.

Next Up: The future of flash memory

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