Disk giants raise the hard-drive banner at a flash storage powwow

The newly formed Storage Products Association aims to raise the profile of spinning disks

Some of the biggest names in hard disk drives will band together this week to remind the world that storage isn't all about flash.

Seagate Technology, Toshiba, Western Digital and HGST will launch the Storage Products Association in the midst of the Flash Memory Summit, a four-day event revolving around storage media that doesn't revolve. Though all the charter members of the SPA make SSDs (solid-state disks) as well as spinning disks, they want to bring HDDs back into the conversation.

Hard drives aren't going away just because consumers and enterprises are buying more flash, said SPA Chairman David Burks.

"There's an important role for NAND flash, but there's also a really important role for HDD-related media," Burks said.

In fact, the amount of data on traditional disk drives still outranks flash storage in its many forms, including SSDs, PCIe server cards and chips built into consumer devices. But as a newer technology and a fast emerging one, flash has been getting more attention in recent years. Solid-state storage offers significantly faster access to information and takes up comparatively less space and power, drawing interest from consumers and enterprises alike.

It's logical for HDD makers to try to raise awareness, said Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay. "They've been sort of outmaneuvered in the public eye by flash," he said. Falling solid-state prices don't help. "As the economics for flash improve, it makes the value of that big spinning media lower," Kay said.

The SPA wants to keep HDDs in the conversation because they remain relevant, Burks said. While flash can accelerate storage in both devices and data centers, spinning disks will still be needed to keep up with the flood of data for the foreseeable future, he said.

The SPA is still scoping out the steps it will take to advance its goals. It plans to participate in trade shows, as it's doing with the Tuesday panel discussion at Flash Memory Summit where the group will be announced, and it might also do market research and give input to standards bodies, Burks said.

But the group's initial focus will be hybrid drives, which primarily store data on spinning disks but also include some built-in flash media. Hybrids are designed to combine the speed of flash with the low cost per gigabyte of HDDs.

Hybrid drives let PC makers offer quick startups and low latency while including more capacity than flash alone could within a given budget, Burks said. In enterprises, they can be a less expensive alternative to hybrid arrays that use specialized software to move the most-used data into a flash tier, he said. Hybrid drives can move that data automatically at the drive level.

The new drives are a good alternative for consumers who don't want to pay top dollar for an all-flash PC, Kay said. "There's a kind of sweet spot where you can argue that having some of both is the best solution," he said.

Hybrid drives for enterprises may be a harder sell. Storage administrators see the value of combining flash and HDD tiers, but most prefer to do it at the system level rather than managing arrays of hybrid drives, Gartner analyst Joseph Unsworth said.

As for HDDs themselves, they're still the best medium for large volumes of data that doesn't need to be used frequently, Endpoint's Kay said. That makes them ideal for big-data analytics, in which enterprises are now building big data centers full of "sparsely used" data, he said. Parts of that data can be moved to faster-moving media when necessary for analysis.

"For example, the NSA, in Utah, is going to buy A LOT of disk drives," Kay said.

There could be life in HDDs yet.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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