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Is a HAMR blow falling on Seagate?

The opposite of NIL desperandum

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Seagate may be facing the abandonment of a favoured future technology as the price for hard disk drive (HDD) industry unity.

The HDD industry is coming to a post-PMR (perpendicular magnetic recording) technology crossroads. The two ways ahead are both hugely expensive and the industry trade body, IDEMA, is setting up the Storage Technology Alliance to agree an industry-wide roadmap.

STA

Xyratex Storage Infrastructure CTO Peter Goglia said: "I believe that STA will provide strong leadership for the technology direction of the HDD industry. The key point is that cost of developing the various next generation areal density technologies will be substantial.

"This will impact costs in R&D, development, process technology, and capital equipment. The economics of the choices along with the necessary innovation investments mandate that the industry must come together such that the maximum leverage is achieved by all the companies involved.

"Direct oversight by industry executives will provide the focus for achieving the required results to make key decisions. Expanded funding of university research will provide the required analysis to support the decision making. The storage industry currently lacks a unified roadmap. STA promises to provide this as a major function. This will help align HDD manufactures, component suppliers and equipment suppliers toward achieving the roadmap.

"[The] STA serves the HDD industry... like SemaTech serves the Semiconductor industry. The key deliverables are the technology roadmap and supporting fundamental technologies."

NIL or HAMR?

The STA would appear to have to decide between two roads ahead. That is because PMR can't take HDD areal density past 1Tbit/in2 whereas two alternative technologies can. (I'm setting shingle writing aside as that is an interim measure.)

One way ahead is signed bit-patterned media (BPM) using Nano-Imprint Lithography (NIL). The other is signposted HAMR (Heat-assisted magnetic recording). We've tracked a little of what has been going on over the past few months, and the picture that's emerging is that most of the HDD suppliers are working on NIL technology with only Seagate favouring HAMR.

For example, Toshiba is working with NIL technology and recently built a prototype BPM drive. Seagate on the other hand is, and has been, working on HAMR technology for some time.

NIL machine tools are needed to make bit-patterned media, and suppliers such as Molecular Imprints have sold development machines to more than one HDD supplier, with 13 machines having been shipped to the HDD industry by March this year.

We understand that Samsung is working with NIL technology and owns patents related to it. Hitachi GST is developing its own NIL capability. When Western Digital bought Komag in 2007 it gained access to Komag's NIL expertise.

Komag was using NIL to develop Discrete Track Recording (DTR), a companion technology to BPM, and developed a proof-of-concept DTR disk as far back as 2004.

This gives us Seagate voting for HAMR, and Hitachi GST, Samsung, Toshiba and Western Digital leaning towards NIL. Four of the Five HDD industry suppliers appear not to be in favour of HAMR.

However, Xyratex thinks HAMR is more practical than NIL-based technology, and TDK is involved with a HAMR head. The overall industry picture is far from one of Seagate being isolated in a HAMR niche.

The STA analysis

Xyratex is not in the STA group, yet, and Peter Goglia said: "Xyratex will strongly support the STA. The collaboration focus and focus on industry leadership as oversight are key elements of making the STA successful and Xyratex aims to support this.

"The ultimate decision between bit patterned and heat assisted magnetic recording as a follow-on technology lies with the HDD and HDD component manufacturers. I see the role of STA to provide the analysis and recommendations that allow the industry to decide.

"I am excited about the prospect of STA to be able to fulfill this role. I believe that it will be successful since industry leaders will be also a key part of the STA leadership."

If the results of STA analysis favour NIL, then Seagate may be facing a nil desperandum problem, as the other four HDD suppliers are seemingly already in favour of NIL. It might have to give up its HAMR technology for the sake of overall HDD industry unity and supply chain cost efficiency. That could be a strong test of its commitment to overall HDD industry unity and rational behaviour. ®

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