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SSD – will hard drives soon be spinning in their graves?

Solid State Disks (SSDs) are being pushed as the next “hot thing” in data storage, so is traditional hard disk drive storage about to be put to the sword?

Well SSDs have been touted as the way forward for many years, the difference now is that the technology finally appears to be developed enough to produce usable products that are not priced out of the general market. It is now possible to replace the hard drive in a laptop with an acceptable capacity SSD without taking out a mortgage, and with lower power usage and greater resistance to shock this is clearly a niche where SSD could well thrive.

For mobile computing the absence of a fast spinning disk with heads just waiting to crash into the surface if the system is dropped, shaken or leant upon, is a definite plus. However, the notebook market alone is not likely to be enough to sustain an emerging technology.

Traditional server and datacenter environments are the area where SSD probably needs to carve out a role if it is to thrive. So does this mean that we are not far away from completely hard drive free datacenters?

We think not.

Hard disk drive technology has maintained an impressive pace. In the late 1980s optical disk storage was threatening to take over a large part of the random access storage market being higher capacity and with a lower cost per megabyte, but this never happened. Hard disk capacities soared, performance improved, costs dropped and optical storage was consigned to a few business areas and lost the battle hands-down.

The most likely development route for the SSD market is through tiered storage, the cost to replace all disk storage is too high but the cost to introduce SSD into performance critical “always-on” systems is acceptable in many environments and the eventual energy saving will offset some of the costs anyway. Where performance is less of an issue it seems more likely that hard disk will continue to dominate for a while, perhaps with systems developing the MAID array notion that the disks do not have to be powered up permanently for less frequently accessed data, and this could allow energy saving without the larger financial outlay required for SSD.

One matter that is sometimes overlooked is the maturity of the product. Hard disk drives are an established technology that is incredibly resilient. Consider how a hard drive operates and how few fail in operation and it is hard not to be impressed. It should not be forgotten either that memory does not last forever, SSD might have no moving parts, but there is still a limit on the number of memory access it can cope with. We are long away from the days when a sneeze at the wrong moment could mean the mainframe disk packs all crashed, and if hard disks were as fragile as some exponents of SSD claim our hard drive data recovery business would probably be rivalling the NHS for second place after the Chinese army for employment.

We believe that SSD will develop into a role as primary data storage for frequently accessed data, but that the uptake in to the general data storage arena will be much slower. History shows us that when there is a pretender to the throne, the established ruler will redouble their efforts to retain their position, and we expect the hard disk drive industry to rise to this challenge in the same way.

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