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The future of storage: disk-based or just discombobulated?

You want disk tech innovations? We got 'em, lots of 'em.

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Let's get Kinetic

Seagate introduced its direct access Kinetic Drive technology in October, with a 4TB drive. These drives are accessed over Ethernet by applications, and have object storage style access using key:value stores. Seagate said; "The majority of today’s mass scale object applications do not need either file semantics or a file system to determine and maintain the best strategy for space management on a device."

It said the total cost of ownership for a disk-based storage infrastructure could be lowered by up to 50 per cent for cloud storage service providers with such drives. In effect the drive space management functionality provided by a storage array controller is divided between the drives, which are more intelligent, and server system software.

The announcement including supporting quotes from Basho Technologies, Dell, EVault, Huawei, Hyve, Rackspace, Sanmina (Newisys division), Supermicro, SwiftStack, Yahoo and Xyratex. Note that last company's involvement.

If either WD or Toshiba support the Ethernet carried object style access then Kinetic drive technology has a more assured future. We watch and wait.

Reinventing hybrid drives

WD went and reinvented hybrid drive technology with its Black Dual Drive laptop spinner. This featured a vastly larger slug of flash than other hybrid drives, at 120GB, and presented it as a second logical drive even though it was in the same 2.5-inch enclosure as a 1TB spinning disk drive. This drive theoretically provides flash speed for the host operating system and applications while also providing a terabyte of cheap disk capacity for data; the best of both flash and disk worlds.

Will Seagate and Toshiba follow suit? They are not saying. Once again, we watch and wait.

The product's flash and disk separation marked it out as different from Apple's Fusion drive which presents two physically separate drives, one flash and one disk, as a single logical drive.

Acquisitions and investments

Business was brisk on the M&A front. Here's a 2013 timeline:

  • January - WD buys Arkeia for its backup software and appliance business
  • January - Seagate invests $40m in PCIe flash HW/SW startup Virident
  • March - Western Digital invested in all-flash array startup Skyera's second funding round
  • June - Western Digital buys fallen enterprise SSD star sTec and sticks it in its HGST subsidiary
  • July - Western Digital buys flash cache software startup VeloBit and assigns it to its HGST sub
  • August - Toshiba invests in Zadara which is developing technology for virtual private storage arrays in the cloud. It said; "The two companies will be working together to introduce innovative Storage-as-a-Service (STaaS) products using cutting-edge technologies they have each developed."
  • August - Seagate invests in eASIC to add new interfaces to its drives
  • September - WD buys Virident and gives it to, yes, its HGST subsidiary which handles nearly all matters flash for WD (except for hybrid flash/disk drives). Seagate rejected a chance to buy Virident
  • December - Toshiba buys the assets of crashed SSD star OCZ
  • December - Seagate buys Xyratex for its HDD test equipment, its OEM disk array enclosure, and its ClusterStor HPC array businesses

On the financial front Seagate is looking more likely to get a $630m boost to its coffers courtesy of an arbitration award over WD recruiting on of its execs and allegedly using secret Seagate information to develop new read/write head technology. This had risen to $706m in October.

It seems noteworthy that with Helium-filled drives from HGST and Kinetic Drives from Seagate there is no second source. It used to be a rule in enterprise disk drive purchases that you never restricted yourself to single source disk drive technology. That idea seems to no longer apply, rendering customers for such drives utterly dependent on one supplier. The benefits of new technology, such as Kinetic or SMR drives, outweighs the single source risk for the large customers involved.

In 2013 we saw the three disk drive manufacturers and their strategies diverging. WD is going after flash products more determinedly while bringing out its SMR tech and HGST its Helium-filled drive products. Seagate is building disk-based products for the cloud and these are taking precedence over its flash storage activities, for now.

In 2014 we should see if SMR drives do make it to general availability. We should also see if the Chinese industry regulator permits Seagate and Samsung on the one hand and WD and HGST on the other to merge their operations. This would enable both Seagate and WD to rationalise their production, research and development and support activities and become more efficient.

The direction and scope of WD/HGST's NAND storage product technology directions should become more visible, as should those of Seagate and Toshiba. Will WD and Toshiba bring out their version of Kinetic Drives? Will Seagate embrace helium-filled drive technology and WD's logically separate flash/disk hybrid drive ideas? How will Toshiba use its OCZ SSD and controller SW assets? What will Seagate do with the three Xyratex businesses?

Questions, questions, questions; Vulture Central's storage desk intends to bring you the skinny on all the disk drive industry's developments in 2014. ®

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