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Who's Eating Whom in the Storage Market?

by Zsolt Kerekes editor of - February 2007

Even very young children are familiar with the concept of a food chain...

We eat fish. Fish eat smaller fish or plankton. Sometimes, if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time, a big fish or a crocodile may eat us.

Dinosaurs eat whatever they want...

It's comforting to believe that there is a natural order to all this.

Ok it's less comforting when you're being eaten alive by mosquitoes or your cat has fleas. And it's morbid to dwell too long on what will happen long after the coffin has gone into the ground... But most people will agree (religious and vegetarian convictions aside) on what creatures get commonly eaten by other creatures and why... Big teeth. Lots of little critters eat one big critter. Predators run faster than prey etc etc

It's not quite so easy to describe the food chain in the storage market.

Let's take a simple thread.

Tape backup got convincingly eaten in 2006 by disk to disk backup. Any tape companies surviving are keeping their heads down, not making much noise or trying to swallow potions that will make them look more like disk backup companies. So hard disks are at the top of this food chain. Right?

But take a look at what's happening to hard disks in the portable storage gadget and notebook market. Nasty little flashy diskses are quietly scrunching away there taking juicy design slots. My Precious.
Meanwhile at the high end of the hard disk market SSDs are now offering nearly as much capacity with faster speeds and better reliability than 15K RPM hard drives.

Although hard drives are often cheaper to buy - SSDs are often cheaper to own - because one SSD may last as long as 3 hard drives, or because the SSD speedup lets you buy less processors - or the embedded application doesn't need much storage.

So serious has the threat here become that some hard disk makers have interbred hybrid flash-magnetic products in the hope that they will look good from whatever angle you choose.

My take on this is that chocolate is nice and chips are nice but I suspect that the market for chocolate coated chips may be limited and will not best please chocoholics or crisp crunchers.

But let's look at another place where hard disks are eating the cream.

It wasn't many years ago that optical storage companies were predicting their products would eat hard drive slots. Shiny 3d-holo-nano-laser-disks were going to be 100 times faster than hard disks and offer 100 times more storage at a small fraction of the price. Billions of dollars of VC funds went down that drain - but actually the hard drive archiving market became too hard to swallow - as hard disks got bigger in capacity and learned how to go into sneaky powered down mode.

But this tale of the hard disk food chain is not yet done.

Because although it's true that flash storage has replaced hard disks in some low power products (or created new niches in which hard disks had never before been viable) a new generation of smaller hard disk companies and products has evolved to meet flash SSDs head to head in phones, portable DVD players etc. It's sometimes hard to tell from the outside which one you've got. And when you hit it with a hammer to look inside - it's dead - so not much use.

Despite the rearguard action and cloning by the hard disk companies the flash storage market has grown fat (tens of billions of dollars revenue) and seems unassailable... But if you look carefully there are a whole bunch of non volatile memory technologies in the parasite hatchery (with technologies called FRAM, MRAM, NRAM and PRAM) which may start pecking away at those hard to reach morsels which the flash entities can't reach.

It's easier to explain dinosaurs and sharks.

I don't want you to think that Megabyte is obsessed with food or animals but while we're on the subject take a look at my growing article Animal Brands and Metaphors in the Storage Market or storage companies which eat other storage companies.

That idea of chocolate coated chips doesn't sound too bad now...
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for experienced enterprise SSD readers if you're new to the SSD market
  • SSD market history - will tell you the highlights from the multi decades narrative of this market - from the perspective of the news stories and people who made it happen at the time.
  • the Top 20 SSD Companies - whatever your interest in SSDs - these are the companies which are attracting the most interest amongst your peers.
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