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Storage big three to define HDD way ahead

Suppliers can't go it alone

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Comment Is the future of hard disk drive (HDD) technology bit-patterning or heat-assist?

That's what Hitachi GST, Seagate and Western Digital are going to get together to decide, fearing to go it alone because that would be far too expensive and risky.

Making the wrong multi-billion dollar bet could ruin a supplier, and the HDD industry wants to pre-empt a potentially disastrous Betamax vs VHS-type struggle.

This is the picture emerging from the formation of the Storage Technology Alliance by IDEMA, the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association, the HDD industry trade body.

The STA has been founded by Hitachi GST, Seagate and Western Digital for "the formation of collaborative joint research initiatives among and between storage industry participants, customers, suppliers, universities and laboratories." An IDEMA statement says: "Significant challenges inherent to future storage technologies have proven too costly, risky, and unmanageable for any single company to pursue alone."

The STA is looking for co-operative research efforts across the whole HDD supply chain and hopes to get financial support from governments and associated laboratories. The IDEMA statement says; "The lack of a sanctioned roadmap has resulted in sub-optimal supply chain tuning. STA will sustain a storage industry roadmap the details of which will be the property of STA member companies."

The sub-text here is all about HDD supply chain companies avoiding expensive mistakes by betting on the wrong HDD technology horse. Those horses are starting off as current perpendicular magnetic recording runs into a roadblock as it reaches 1Tbit/in2, because the very small grain collections can't reliably sustain their magnetic charge.

BPM and HAMR

Bit-patterned media (BPM) surrounds the magnetic elements with an insulating ring and requires hugely expensive development of lithography tooling and testing. Heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) uses media in which the recording elements are more stable because heat is needed to change their magnetic charge.

Seagate has been developing HAMR technology whilst Hitachi GST has been associated with BPM investigations. Western Digital's thinking is unknown, beyond the obvious conclusion that whichever way is chosen it will be terrifically expensive. The other two HDD manufacturers, Toshiba and Samsung, will also be very concerned about the future direction.

The HDD supply chain contains head-developing companies, media and substrate preparation and production tool suppliers, test equipment suppliers, and the HDD manufacturers themselves, the five of them. With Samsung's continuing participation being questioned by some observers, there might just be four in a few years time.

Whichever technology is chosen as the way forward then the whole supply chain could co-operate to develop it without wasting money on the wrong horse, and with all the components of the chosen technology finding the widest possible market in the industry, thus lowering overall costs.

For this to succeed some suppliers are going to have to give something up, or keep in their back pocket for the future. It is conceivable that the industry could settle on BPM and then add Discrete Track Recording followed by HAMR, heating the patterned bits in their discrete tracks. That means HAMR research would not have been wasted.

The cartel kite needs to be raised as well, so that it can be shot down as being non-applicable. IDEMA's lawyers better get working on that issue.

It's rapidly become apparent that the transition from PMR technology to whatever follows it is going to be hugely expensive and the main players in the industry want to avoid making the wrong choices. Perhaps IDEMA is looking at the LTO organisation and seeing it as a great model to follow. It will be much more ambitious than the LTO though and require lots of goodwill between HDD supply chain members to succeed. ®

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