Why the SSD will kill the HDD

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Opinion – The days of the hard drive are numbered. I recently chatted with Samsung on their opinion of the state solid state disk drive (SSD) market and while Samsung seems to be very careful comparing their SSDs and their ability to replace traditional hard drives, it is now clear to me that there is no way out for the hard drive. Over the next few years, the hard drive may keep the edge in capacity and price, but it inevitably will be driven into shrinking niches. While the advantages of the technology are visibly melting away, it is obvious that the hard drive may not just die because of its inferior performance or higher power consumption – but simply because of its form factor.  

When you read about SSDs today, or if you are considering the purchase of an SSD or a new computer that simply comes with a SSD pre-installed, you are every likely to be among the most educated users and you may have read the same messages about SSDs again. When comparing them to either performance hard drives in desktop PCs or to power saving hard drives in mobile computers, you are currently confronted with a difficult balancing act that depends on your priorities.

On the one hand, an SSD is likely to provide you with more data transfer bandwidth, less power consumption (=more battery time) and less heat. On the other, an SSD is likely to cost you 10 times as much as a hard drive with a similar capacity and you can get much more capacity with hard drives than with SSDs in 1.8” (up to 240 GB) and 2.5” (up to 500 GB) anyway (yes, there are 512 GB SSDs, but these can hardly be considered consumer products.) So, do you buy the faster SSD and take the price hit or do you go with a hard drive with more capacity, which – depending on the model you choose – could be plenty fast (WD Velociraptor) or power efficient (many 1.8” drives consume less than 2 watts today)?

Most consumers are choosing the hard drive path today and even Samsung admits that the SSD market is still in its infancy: By far the most important SSD market today is the low-cost notebook segment, which gobbles up most 4, 8 and 16 GB SSDs. The traditional PC market as we know it is separated into the configure-to-order (CTO) and pre-configured markets. Both markets are in their very early stages, according to Samsung. While there are more and more SSD pre-configured models, such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad X300, growth takes time. On the CTO side, educated consumers are leading the way for the SSD.

Broad market acceptance is usually tied to a phase when a technology enters the mainstream. Depending on the company you talk to, you may get a different answer what mainstream may mean for the SSD and when the mainstream PC market will be affected by the SSD. Intel, for example, thinks its recently announced $595 80 GB SSD is in the mainstream – which is a statement I would disagree with. Samsung says that mainstream SSDs will be enabled with multi-level cell (MLC) flash technology (also used by Intel’s SSDs), which should bring prices down dramatically. Prior to writing this article, I found 32 GB SSDs for less than $100 and 64 GB versions for less than $200. More 128 GB (MLC) models will become more available in Q4 and we should be seeing 256 GB versions (1.8”, 2.5”) in H1 2009 for prices of less than $1000.

No question, that is not mainstream yet. But SSDs are getting closer and are doubling their capacity every 12 months, while traditional hard drives currently show a capacity growth of about 50% per year. Conceivably, there will be a time when consumers will perceive SSDs as large enough for their needs in their primary computing devices. At least for now, market researchers say that the hard drive market is driven by an insatiable demand for storage – in Q1 of this year, 137 million hard drives were shipped, up 21% from the year ago-quarter, according to iSuppli. But that trend may start to reverse as SSDs are closing in on HDDs over time, similar to how flash memory has driven hard drives almost completely out of MP3 players.                

But the fate of the hard drive may eventually be sealed by a factor many of us do not see yet. The hard drive is certainly a moving market in price and capacity, but there is a critical disadvantage that will seal the hard drive’s fate: Flash memory devices can be manufactured in any shape you a customer needs – squares, rectangles, L-shapes, or triangles. Thick or thin. Small or large. The size of the hard drive is set at 1.8”, 2.5” and 3.5” (and if you look really hard 1” and 0.85”). While product designers have to design their product around a hard drive, future flash memory devices will be able to be designed around a product’s requirements.  

Imagine what a company like Apple can do with such freedom (well, they already do  it with the iPod) – imagine future handheld devices that don’t have to accommodate a standard 1.8” or 2.5” drives, but can house drives that may be custom-designed for a specific device. Of course, economies of scale play into such a scenario, but Samsung says that custom flash memory products will make a whole lot of sense for products with a certain volume. Put into the equation a mainstream price point and “enough” storage space and you have to wonder why you would use a hard drive in any mobile product. In an increasingly mobile world, the hard drive suddenly like a really old and may be pushed back into niches and application areas with archiving purposes.

Clearly, the hard drive won’t disappear tomorrow. And it is very likely that the hard drive is likely to outlive flash, which is reportedly reaching is scaling limits at around 22 nm. IBM recently said that it will remove the hard drive from its products around 2018, which would mean that it may be pretty difficult to purchase any computing device with a hard drive by 2020. I am convinced that the SSD may bring the most dramatic shifts in mainstream computing we aren’t aware of yet.