Monday, August 23, 2010
Currie Munce, vice president of worldwide research at Hitachi GST, sees a big change ahead in hard disk drives.
"We think it will be needed in the 2014 or 2015 timeframe, so we have to get ready for mass production," a process that can take three years, Munce said in an interview with EE Times.
"So in the next two years we have to make some significant decisions," Munce said. "The supply base needs a common direction from the industry, and that can't come from one company alone," he said.
That's why Hitachi GST, Seagate and Western Digital formed the tentatively named Storage Technology Alliance. The group will define a road map for hard drives and drive research to meet its milestones.
The three have initially kicked in a half million dollars each into a pool to form the group. They pitched Samsung on joining this week in a U.S. meeting and will talk to Samsung and Toshiba in Asia shortly.
But just what decision this still-evolving group will make is still unclear.
Executives from the three companies and Toshiba said this week they believe today's perpendicular recording can be extended using a new shingled magnetic recording (SMR) technique now in develop to pack as much as 1.5 Terabits of data on a square inch of disk space. SMR will take them out to about 2015 at best, then something radically different will be needed.
Seagate and Western Digital believe that is some form of recording that uses tiny but magnetically stable materials on a disk that to be read must be briefly heated with a laser diode or other device.
"We have been doing R&D on this technology for many years, feel that it is on a good path to commercialization and is less disruptive to the drive architecture and optimization," said Mark Re, senior vice president of recording media operations at Seagate in an email exchange about its approach called heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR).
Hitachi GST and Toshiba have been researching new ways to pattern tiny bits on a disk that don't require heating to be read. Toshiba reported progress on the so-called bit patterned media approach this week.
But each company is doing some work in both areas and both fields include various derivative approaches. Indeed Seagate presented three papers on bit patterned media this week and Hitachi gave two on HAMR.
"I would say our efforts in bit patterned media have remained roughly constant, but we have been about doubling our work on HAMR over the last two years," said Munce.
HAMR's challenges include finding the right recording materials, then solving a range of engineering challenges such as how to integrate laser diodes and recording heads. Patterned media proponents have yet to demonstrate ways to cover a full disk with tiny magnetic dots in a way that can be mass produced and adds no more than two dollars to the cost of a disk.
The problems are huge and have implications all up and down the hard disk supply chain. Insiders say they have run the numbers a few times but decline to share estimates some say stretches into the billions of dollars for an industry with historically penny-pinching budgets.
"While R&D spending is likely flat to slightly up, we have become much more efficient in how we spend these dollars," said Re of Seagate.
Indeed, hard drive R&D budgets are not expected to expand substantially despite the looming and expensive technology transition. Drive makers' revenue growth hovers around ten percent a year at best and R&D budgets are typically at fixed percentages of sales.
"Doing more leading edge work in collaboration with our manufacturing sites allows capital leverage and the ability to transition technologies more quickly," Re said. "Some of the farther out research that may have all been done internally in the past is now done is collaboration with universities, or with industry/academic consortiums," he added.
The new STA group aims to kick that collaboration up a notch. Munce describes it as a magnifying glass to focus sunlight into a beam capable of burning a hole through a piece of paper.
Most drive makers are already members of the Storage Research Consortium, but that group has a Japan-specific charter, said Munce. STA is modeled on SRC and the two groups likely will collaborate, he added.
"We are looking for ways to share because the long-term goal overall industry convergence [on a road map], but it takes awhile for these things to congeal," said Munce.
That convergence needs to happen in two years if hard drives—increasingly challenged by solid state flash memory—are to keep pace.
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