Death of the disk: is the HDD heading to hardware heaven?

28/05/2011 13:40pm

In the fast-moving world of technology, the hard disk is a survivor: it’s been around since the 1950s, and it’s inside billions of PCs today – not to mentions servers, portable media players and other devices. One reason for its success is the incredible shrinking price of storage: IBM’s first efforts in 1956 delivered 5MB of storage at a cost of $10,000 per megabyte, while today’s terabyte drives deliver more than a million megabytes for as little as £35. However, in recent years we’ve seen the rise of a very different kind of storage: the flash drive.

Are the hard disk’s days numbered?

Flash! Aaaa-aaaah!

Flash storage has become popular for two key reasons: it’s very small, and it’s very fast. Flash memory can fit into spaces even the titchiest hard disks can’t manage, and because there are no moving parts – flash memory is entirely solid state, which is why such drives are known as SSDs (Solid State Drives) – they operate at much higher speeds than traditional magnetic media. They’re quiet, too: even the most refined hard disk makes some noise, while SSDs are silent.

Hard disk firms continue to refine their products – researchers in Singapore have just announced a new way of organising data on hard disks that could improve capacity sixfold – but it’s very unlikely that magnetic media will ever be as fast as solid state storage.

There’s another benefit to solid state storage: it doesn’t require as much power as hard disks do, so if you stick flash storage into a mobile workstation or laptop you can make batteries last for longer. It’s no wonder that SSDs are proving popular with mobile pros and power users who need their PCs to perform at full pelt for long periods.

Flash storage might also be better for the environment. A server farm packed with devices running solid state drives would be more efficient in multiple ways: more space-efficient, because the devices could be smaller; more power-efficient, because the devices wouldn’t need as much power to perform (SSDs typically use between one third and one half of the energy of a comparable hard disk); and more energy efficient, because the devices wouldn’t generate as much heat and therefore wouldn’t need as much cooling.

It would also be eye-wateringly, pant-threateningly expensive.

Flash storage costs a fortune.

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