Hard disks vs flash drives: the verdict

According to Hitachi Global Storage director Larry Swezey, the future is bright for hard disk drives (HDDs) - despite the growing popularity of flash-based solid-state storage.

Consumer and Commercial HDD director Swezey sees the extra capacity that HDDs can offer as a major selling point, not least because, in his words: "people always want a bigger house". Or, to put it another way, we all suffer from specification envy. As a consequence, the major push for more storage is coming from consumers.

These days we all have genuine reasons for requiring more hard drive space than flash can currently deliver, according to Swezey. As anybody who has ever edited video can confirm, digital media eats storage. And like it or not, Vista is here to stay: and that means we are all going to need the best specs money can buy.

But does that mean spinning hard disks are here to stay? Certainly Swezey thinks so. And he cites as an example the Travelstar 5K500 - a 12.5mm thick, 2.5in 500GB notebook drive. Hitachi showed this drive at CES and then, according to Swezey at least, was blown away by the interest it generated.

Hitachi certainly isn't resting on these laurels. Swezey says the company is currently increasing capacities at a rate of 40 percent a year. And it expects to be increasing storage at a rate of 60 percent year-on-year by the end of 2008. So as long as the drives keep getting faster, and the demand keeps growing, the future's bright for HDDs, right?

Well, perhaps. But (pun alert) there's never been less space in the storage market.

The online option

Online storage, for instance, is an increasing threat to the traditional hard disk drive. Indeed, earlier this year IDC research suggested that global online backup services are poised for major growth.

The research estimated that revenue for this emerging market would reach $715m by 2011, representing a 33.3 percent compound annual growth between 2006 and 2011.

"Consumers and small businesses especially are interested in alternative methods of protecting their data, as traditional backup methods fall short regarding efficiency, reliability, and ease-of-use," said Doug Chandler, research director for storage services at IDC.

"Online backup has become an attractive approach for many customers, with the advent of cheaper broadband access, users' greater comfort level with web-based services, and the growing business need for a second site for remote data protection purposes."

Swezey disagrees. He acknowledges that online storage is a rival to spinning hard disks, but - citing problems with bandwidth, performance and security - believes the industry has yet to mature.

So Hitachi remains bullish about the future of HDDs. As Swezey sees it, hard disks have seen off the challenge of optical and bubble storage, and current rivals such as flash will be beaten down too.

We shall see.

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Matt Egan

PC Advisor (UK)

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