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Predicting the Long Term Future of Hard Disks, Tape and Optical Storage

March 2004 by Zsolt Kerekes editor
See also:- SSD market research
this way to the Petabyte SSD
the future of enterprise data storage in the broadcast market
Why would anyone be interested in past data storage news?
Editor's intro:- You can save a lot of expensive mistakes by guessing which way technology patterns will change in the long term. STORAGEsearch has been providing long range technology and individual company forecasts for many years. Although we don't provide any guarantees, we've been right more often than wrong. Even if you don't agree with our picture it may help you develop your own ideas.
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"Spellerbyte's ScryWareTM package gave him
useful insights into the future and included a
crystal ball to notebook WSB (Wizard Serial Bus)
adapter cable.

Back in the days when I worked in R&D I used to joke that if my crystal ball was better I could see which technologies and vendors would actually be most successful in the future and invest more time in the winners and less in the losers. I was a good guesser and often chose the right technologies, even if it was sometimes for the wrong reasons. That didn't harm my career either and helped me advance up the technical management tree in a bunch of companies.

Being a good guesser is important for you too, whether you're a buyer, vendor or developer of storage systems and products. Investing time and effort into dead end technologies is wasteful of your time and money because if you choose a loser you may have to scrap your current strategy and start all over again instead of reaping the rewards of incremental improvements which you get by backing the winners.

Nowhere is the range of solutions more confusing than deciding how you're going to manage your data storage strategy.

A short article like this is not going to give you all the answers, but let me share my 5 to 10 year vision of some critical storage trends which may affect the shape of things to come.


  • hard disk drives will replace tape in all but the largest systems.

    Disk and tape drives already offer similar cost and storage density. The argument for tape used to be that it was cheaper, but as tape drives become more complex (with inbuilt flash to help them remember when they are supposed to be in WORM mode for example) those differences are eroding. In big disk archive libraries - the disks are being used in powered down mode to save on electrical power and increase MTBF - so the much touted difference in access time for archived date between disk and tape is also mythical. They're both going to offer the same functions at the same price. But disks also have a wider market in consumer products -which means they will win.

    The big decline in tape market revenue in 2003 confirmed this trend. Disk to disk backup which started out as a niche technology evangelized by Nexsan Technologies just a couple of years before gained a lot of new converts in 2003 - including many tape library companies. The writing was on the wall. The declining cost of hard drives, the massive expansion in corporate data, and the growth of internet backup and offsite replication technologies like iSCSI together meant that the traditional advantage of tape - that you could walk out of the building carrying the backup - was no longer true for most companies.

    So if tape backup no longer offered convenient off-site data security for most users - it would have to find a new role. I believe that new role is at the entry level, in very small installations - and at the other end of the scale in systems on a Petabyte scale - where tape libraries have been proven, and cautious users will resist the unknown risks and management factors in disk to disk backup.

    See also:- Disk to disk backup, Hard drives, Tape drives

  • solid state disk drives will replace magnetic hard drives as the default factory shipped drives for the operating systems etc in high performance servers.

    SSDs will overtake hard drives in capacity sometime in the next 5 years, and as semiconductor devices are on a steeper declining cost curve than magnetic storage, once they get close - the market - at the high performance end will switch fast. This competitive situation is made more difficult for hard disk OEMs because the main way they can reduce access time and increase IOPs is by making their disks smaller. But that also reduces the total amount of storage. Whether SSDs win at the 2.5" level or 1" level is hard to say. However hard disk makers won't suddenly go out of business, because in the same time frame that they get designed out of high end servers, the consumer market (which doesn't need the same level of performance) will already have replaced the IT market as the biggest home for disk drives.

    See also:- article:- Charting the Rise of the Solid State Disk Market, Solid state disks, InfiniBand, Blade servers - SPARC

  • removable optical storage - the descendants of today's DVD drives - may become obsolete.

    The main advantage that optical has to offer over other forms of mass storage - is that it will preserve data intact for a long period - and doesn't need to be powered to do so. Optical media makers might argue that if your disk drive gets immersed under two feet of water - then you have a problem - whereas their optical media would preserve your data with a simple cleanup and could last 100 years. However - in a totally networked world - your data should be replicated in more than one location anyway - so the survivability of optical compared to magnetic drives - is irrelevant.

    Although today CDs and DVDs are widely used to distribute entertainment content and personal data today - in the future the content distribution will mostly be by internet download - while the physical media exchange will be by flash memory devices which are small enough to be compatible with both pocket and desktop systems.

    See also:- article:- Do CDs and DVDs Have a Long Term Future as Digital Storage?, CD-RW & DVD-RW drives, Media, Flash Memory, Jukeboxes

You'll see what actually happens by coming back to the STORAGEsearch news pages from time to time. See also what others have to say on these subjects by visiting the market research pages etc.

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