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Seagate and the joy of SSD

Storage VP discusses hybrids, encryption and why we always have 10 years headroom.

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In the last week or so, Seagate has announced new products right across its range. At the launch event, we talked to Marc Jourlait, the company's global marketing VP, to find out what's driving the hard disk giant and what it sees as the hottest themes in storage.

Built-in crypto chips

One of the first products up was a desktop drive with an encryption chip built in - it's the same full disk encryption (FDE) security technology that Seagate already offers on laptop drives.

Do desktops need this sort of thing? Absolutely, said Jourlait, adding that while they're not as easy to steal as laptops, they get stolen nonetheless. Plus, it's not unknown for a drive to go walkies from its host PC.

The advantage of putting the crypto into the drive is it's harder to circumvent than using software encryption - or at least so the government spooks say, he claimed.

"We are already working with US agencies and are starting to engage with European security agencies now," he said. "There's fewer disclosure laws here in Europe - in the US, you have to reveal a data breach or loss if the data was not encrypted."

He added that FDE also gives the drive a quick-erase feature - you just destroy the encryption key and the disk is in effect as blank as the day it was made.

What about servers and disk arrays - could they use FDE too? That's more of a problem, he said - in particular, if you have an array, where are the keys stored? For now, software encryption may be a better solution.

Magnetic or solid-state?

Jourlait's presentation included projections for volume shipments of hard disk, hybrid and solid-state drives, and predicted that hard disks will remain the bulk of the business for many years. Interestingly, he also forecast that hybrid drives - hard disks with multi-Gigabyte caches - would outsell flash memory-based SSDs, or solid-state drives.

And he denied that Seagate has any intention to move away from rotating storage towards SSD, saying that both have their place.

"In the end, we think it's all good," he said, adding that: "The overwhelming majority of storage needs will not be met by flash - in fact, we see flash fuelling more and more demand for hard disk storage."

He offered the example of an MP3 player. Flash-based it may be, but it will most probably be loaded from a PC or Mac, which will have a hard disk, while the music on that will have been downloaded from a server, also equipped with hard drives.

Of course, Seagate's plans for SSD are an acknowledgement that the company got it wrong back in 2000, when it let go of its early investment in SSD pioneer SanDisk. Now it has to decide how to get back into SSD, and in particular whether it buys in SSDs from someone such as SanDisk or builds its own.

That's going to be a tough call for the company. It is wedded to vertical integration, meaning it likes to build its products from start to finish, yet flash memory is a well-supplied commodity market with a very high barrier to entry.

"We will deliver SSD in 2008, though we haven't yet decided how to procure or manufacture it," said Jourlait. "Seagate's track record is we like to vertically integrate, though SSD might be a bit different. It is easy to get into, but not so easy to be good at - it's how you integrate, how you mass produce."

Hybrid traction

The obvious problem for SSDs is of course cost, and Jourlait argued that flash doesn't offer enough other advantages to outweigh that - even with the general concerns in the storage industry that eventually the technology that goes into hard disks will run out of steam.

"In five years, hybrid storage will be bigger than flash in units," he said. "The weight difference between hard disks and SSD is minimal, and even on shock resistance they're on a par. But hybrid and flash cost more, so we're not sure there's a big market for large SSDs.

"We see all three being relevant, and will play in all three. Then 10 years out, we start to look at alternative technologies.

"We have 4x headroom today from technology that's already in the labs. Beyond that is holographic storage, MRAM and so on - we have four or five alternatives we're looking at. We know magnetic recording will run out, but we think we have 10 years before it happens."

So will spinning storage fade away after 2017? Perhaps, but it's interesting that the super-paramagnetic effect - the point at which the energy of a magnetic bit becomes indistinguishable from the native energy of the material around it - has been "ten years away" for, oh, at least ten years. We do indeed live in interesting times....

The new disk drives

Seagate announced a number of new drives. Due to ship later this year are:

  • The SV35 series 1TB drive for digital video surveillance, optimised to write streaming data as fast as possible without ever dropping a frame.
  • Momentus 5400.4, a 250GB laptop drive that spins (as its name suggests) at 5400 RPM. It uses PMR to get all those bits onto just two platters, and connects over 3Gbit/s SATA.

Due in 2008 are:

  • Barracuda FDE (full disk encryption), a 3.5-inch 1TB desktop drive that has the same built-in encryption chip as the Momentus FDE laptop drives.
  • Cheetah 15.6, a server drive that's claimed to be the highest-performing 3.5-inch hard disk ever. It spins at 15,000 RPM, uses second-generation PMR and is available in sizes up to 450GB.

The company also announced 1TB drives for consumer electronics such as DVRs, and updates to its Maxtor USB hard drive range - it now uses the Maxtor name for external drives aimed at consumers and the Seagate name for those aimed at business users.


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