Ever since the introduction of the first hard drive in 1956, it was clear that there is a physical limit to how much data a hard drive can store within a certain surface area. Samsung announced new hard drives today that feature an aereal density that was questioned just four years ago and we are now approaching densities that are believed to be the limit for the current recording technology. Is it finally time to ditch traditional magnetic recording methods and transition to heat assisted recording?
Samsung today announced new desktop hard drives that appear to be nothing special on the surface as they do not offer new value in terms of total storage capacity. The eco-focused Spinpoint F4 series received the HD204UI models as new flagship products that feature capacities of 1.5 and 2.0 TB. However, the 2.0 TB model now includes only 3 disks instead of four, which means that the storage capacity has been increased by 33% to 667 GB.
The immediate effect are potentially lower production costs for Samsung, lower power consumption (down from 7.2 to 5.5 watts during read/write processes) and possibly lower noise levels for the user. However, more density also provides a way to higher capacity 3.5” drives, which means that Samsung is now able to build 2.7 TB and 3.3 TB hard drives with four or five disks, respectively. Such drives are rather unlikely however, as we would expect the density to grow to 750 GB per disk, which could enable 4-disk 3 TB drives.
Interestingly enough, that may be easier said than done as magnetic recording has physical limits that, at some point, cannot be bent anymore. Samsung’s latest drives are well into an area that is nearing what is believed to be the physical limit of the current perpendicular recording technology. At 667 GB per disk, the new drive ends up at 739 Gb per square inch storage density. To put that into perspective, the first drive that made the transition from linear magnetic to perpendicular magnetic recording was announced in January 2006: Seagate’s 160 GB 2.5” drive featured 132 GB per square inch or 80 GB on each of its two 2.5” disks. Back then, it was believed that perpendicular recording would scale somewhere into the area of 500 Gb to 1 Tb per square inch density. As far as we are aware, a 1 Tb per square inch density has not been demonstrated so far and laboratory environments are currently somewhere between 800 and 900 Gb per square inch. By the way, the very first hard drive, was IBM’s 350 Disk File, which consisted of 50 24” disks and a total storage capacity of 5 million 7-bit characters or about 4.4 MB. The storage density works out to about 0.002 Mb per square inch.
Perpendicular recording was first shown in what could be considered a production drive in 2005, but its concept can be traced back to a Japanese research project in 1976. At the current pace, perpendicular recording may not be a solution for much more than a decade and the industry may have to look into other technologies. In July 1997, Seagate acquired Quinta, which had developed a rather revolutionary, but expensive heat-assisted magnetic recording technology that used lasers similar to CD drives to influence the magnetic recording capabilities of a hard drive. Back then, Quinta said that its technology could drive reach (linear) storage densities of about 250 Gb per square inch, which was about 250 times the capacity that had been achieved in lab environments at the time (IBM showed 1 Gb per square inch in 1996.)
Seagate is still working on heat-assisted recording technology, even if the company does not talk much about it. Its HAMR technology was demonstrated first in 2002 and was promised to increased storage densities by a factor of 100x. Personally, I have been impressed back in 1997 by Quinta’s technology demonstration and I almost had given up that it would see the light of the day. However, it now seems that it may get another chance in the foreseeable time. In the end, hard drive capacities will have to keep growing to defend the technology against Flash, which is getting cheaper and reaches significant capacity ranges.
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