What your hard drive will look like in five years

Hard disk drives may soon be replaced by solid-state disk (SSD) drives

A 1.8-in solid state drive

A 1.8-in solid state drive

As solid-state disk (SSD) technology closes in on hard-disk drive (HDD) capacity and price, experts say it may not be long before spinning disks are a thing of the past and a computer's storage resides in flash memory on the motherboard.

By making the drive part of a system's core architecture -- instead of a peripheral device -- data I/O performance could initially double, quadruple or more, according to Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist with market research firm In-Stat.

"Instead of using a SATA interface, let's break that and instead of making it look like a disk drive, let's make it look like part of the memory hierarchy," McGregor said. "Obviously, if you break down that interface, you get more performance."

Currently, Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) is the bus used to transfer data between a computer and storage devices, be it HDDs or SDDs in a 1.8-in., 2.5-in. or 3.5-in. disk drive form factor. SSD manufacturers have been fitting SSDs into a hard disk drive case to fit it into existing computer architectures.

Within three years, McGregor said SSDs with 256GB capacity -- already on the market -- will be close to the same price as hard drives. (A 256GB SSD for the new 17-in. MacBook Pro from Apple is a US$900 build-to-order option, for instance. A 250GB HDD goes for about a tenth that price.) That will signal to manufacturers that it's time to consider an interface change. And, while SSDs will be lagging behind the 500GB to 1TB capacities of hard disk drives for some time to come, McGregor argues that users don't need that much storage anyway.

"We've already seen this trend in the netbook space, and we will see it more in the notebook platform. Storage will begin to look more like a memory module than a hard drive," said Dean Klein, vice president of Micron Corp.'s SSD group. "There's a move afoot to make it more like a card-edge connector, so the SSD would not have the cost of a mechanical connector. It would just have gold-plated fingers on the edge: No enclosure, just the circuit board."

Disk drive vendors are doubling the capacity of drives every 12 to 18 months, but In-Stat's data indicates that the average storage requirements of users increase in a more linear way. And, while HD video can drive a huge swing in storage requirements, the advent of on-line libraries and storage services tend to even out the trends, McGregor said.

According to In-Stat, SSD prices have been dropping 60% year over year. Currently, the price of consumer-grade SSD costs from US$2 to $3.45 per gigabyte, with hard drives going for about 38 cents per gigabyte, according to Gartner and iSuppli.

"Two years ago, SSDs cost $17.50 per gigabyte, so it's obvious that consumer NAND flash memory will soon be a true contender to hard disk drives -- it's just not there yet," Gartner analyst Joseph Unsworth said. "I think you need to get to 128GB for around $200, and that's going to happen around 2010. Also, the industry needs to effectively communicate why consumers or enterprise users should pay more for less storage."

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Lucas Mearian

Lucas Mearian

Computerworld
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