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Hard Drives: Future Watch

Hard drives have been indispensable to our computer use for about the last 20 years. Today, hard drives are increasingly indispensable in other ways. "The whole lifestyle has changed--content is king, and we're carrying data wherever we go. The hard disk drive is the enabler of this," says Seagate's Wickersham. "We have 20 disk drives in our home--and there are four of us," he continues.

tiny hard drive

Hard drives are in everything from cell phones and digital audio players to set-top box video recorders. That trend will grow, according to industry experts--and provide a fertile new opportunity for the proliferation of high-capacity, hard drive-based storage.

Hitachi's Healy suggests that the beginning of what he thinks of as the "consumer era of hard drives" can be traced back to 1998, with the introduction of the 1-inch IBM Microdrive. At the time, it stored 340MB in a space just a bit thicker than a standard CompactFlash card.

"A tech-savvy home could easily generate 5 terabytes of cumulative data from 2002 to 2010," estimates Coughlin. He elaborates: "About half of that would be personal content and half of that would be commercial content. I'm projecting that by the next decade, as consumers become creators of content--a camera on your cell phone is just the beginning--the demand for storage will mushroom, and the line between what's commercial and what's personal will be blurred. Personal content will significantly overwhelm commercial content for the people who are comfortable with the technology--especially the younger generation."

Universally, industry experts expect the cost per gigabyte to continue to fall and capacity to continue its march onward and upward. Estimates Gartner Research Vice President John Monroe, by the end of 2006 you'll see 80GB to 160GB 3.5-inch drives sell for less than $50. By 2010, Monroe predicts that you'll pay that same price for 750GB to 1TB drives. The pace of areal density boosts, he notes, won't be quite as rapid as they have been in the past decade, but they will continue.

Wickersham outlines what he expects for 3.5-inch drives: "In 2005, for a three-platter drive, 500GB was standard. By 2009, that will be a 2TB drive. And if we continue for 2013, using Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording technology, we'll have 8TB drives." Wickersham throws out similar numbers for 1-inch drives: From a standard of 8GB in 2005, he expects we'll see 30GB in 2009, and 100GB in 2013.

We can also expect to see hybrid hard drives that integrate flash memory to take advantage of Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system. In addition, server technologies such as faster rotational speeds and more robust design should trickle down into standard desktop drives--that's something, says Wickersham, "that's closer to [happening in] 2007 to 2013. I think it will be sooner than anyone realizes."

In the near term, one potential technology tweak could be a shift to using what's called long data block. In long data block, you'll move from 512 bytes to 4 kilobytes--a change that requires operating system support. This could boost a drive's capacity and efficiency during video streaming.

Looking ahead, other technologies that will help keep the areal density race on include patterned magnetic media and Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording, also known as HAMR.

Patterned magnetic media is a less random and more structured recording process in which the bits of info are akin to small islands of magnetic material.

In HAMR, the drive will have a heating element, perhaps even a laser, to heat tiny bits of information and change the state of the material, as the data is written; the changed state will allow data to be recorded. "It's quite an integration challenge, integrating a laser into the disk drive," says Wickersham.

As these future technologies show, magnetic disk recording has plenty of innovation ahead. "The technology can be re-engineered and reinvented and extended for at least another couple of decades," Hitachi's Healy enthuses. Engineering roadmaps extend another two decades, at this point--although the sharpest engineers can't completely anticipate where storage is going. Back in 1956, after all, a storage scientist's wildest dreams would not have foreseen the developments we take for granted today.

Melissa J. Perenson is a senior associate editor for PC World.
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