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Jim O'Reilly
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Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives

While solid state gains ground, vendors surprise the market with new hard disk drives. Does anyone really need them?

A new, a pint-sized, 15,000 RPM hard disk drive has just been released to the market. It's a fast little product from Western Digital's HGST that is a capacity match for traditional enterprise 3.5-inch drives. Fitted into only a 2.5-inch form factor, however, the Ultrastar C15K600 boasts more than double the performance of existing drives.

The product doesn't come with a Fibre Channel interface, so it isn't a complete throwback to the good old days. But it ships without onboard flash or any of the other new industry tricks, such as helium filling.

The question is, "Who needs it?" That's not pejorative, but this drive goes against the current wisdom of the disk drive business. It's generally accepted that superfast SSD or flash arrays will overtake the market for enterprise performance storage -- a process that's already happening.

In a press release announcing the new Ultrastar, HGST cited guidance from IDC indicating that the demand for 15K drives in 2016 would be twice that for SSDs. in 2016. In addition, HGST said:

First, our customers continue to use 15K HDDs along with a complement of SSDs in tiered pools of storage, depending on their performance, capacity, and power efficiency requirements. Our new Ultrastar C15K600 fills a need for storage that is more cost effective than SSDs, and has the performance, reliability and capacity requirements needed by mission-critical enterprise applications. Also, we see that the industry is transitioning away from 15K 3.5-inch hard drives to smaller 2.5-inch drives to help reduce space requirements, while offering comparable capacities to the legacy 3.5-inch 15K products.

This seems to suggest that legacy arrays are driving the need for the new product, but 2.5-inch drives generally don't fit arrays and need physical adapters. The last sentence suggests new 2.5-inch arrays could be a major factor in the opportunity.

Looking a bit deeper, the legacy story has a few holes. Arrays tend to be homogenous in drive types, and enterprise drives have had long lifecycles as a result. Certainly, the ability to get doubled performance might be an argument for upgrading all the drives in an array, but given the alternatives of SSD and all-flash arrays, it isn't very strong.

The tiering comment is also a bit off-key. Creating a current-view tiering involves a solid-state front-end with bulk spinning drives behind it. Flash/SSD products provide the IOPS, while the HDDs provide the terabytes for archiving, backup, and low-usage data. There doesn't appear to be a use case for SSDs and fast (but expensive) enterprise 15K HDDs, since any such case is better resolved with more SSDs.

Drives like this could give life to new large capacity arrays with, say, 60 drives in a 3U cabinet. A 36-terabyte box like this would deliver just 18,000 IOPS, which is far below the slowest single SSD on the market. We must remember that we have been conditioned by 30 years of performance stagnation in HDDs to think only of capacity when it comes to choosing drives. 

So how much does the capacity really cost? Terabyte consumer grade multi-level cell SSDs retail for around $600. De-provisioning them to 600 GB provides an excellent wear life. While HGST hasn't publicly announced a price for the new Ultrastar drive, based on similar enterprise drives it won't be much cheaper than $600. Of course, the OEM vendors may choose to set premium prices on SSDs for their arrays, and having the new HDD as an option allows for more pricing games. That seems a bit like a bait and switch, with SSD coming out the winner. 

In sum, the use cases for this type of drive aren't obviously strong. It will likely find a market in Japan, for example, where conservatism is king, but SSD is running a better race elsewhere.

The new drive is nice example of design in its class, and a tribute to its design team. Market success would be well deserved, but the deck may be stacked against it. Don't be surprised if we look back in a year or two and say, "This was the best -- and the last -- enterprise HDD."

State Of Enterprise Storage Solid state alone can't solve your volume and performance problem. Think scale-out, virtualization, and cloud. Find out more about the 2014 State of Enterprise Storage Survey results in the new issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

 

Jim O'Reilly was Vice President of Engineering at Germane Systems, where he created ruggedized servers and storage for the US submarine fleet. He has also held senior management positions at SGI/Rackable and Verari; was CEO at startups Scalant and CDS; headed operations at PC ... View Full Bio
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JCreasey
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JCreasey,
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3/28/2014 | 6:03:57 PM
Re: Death of HHDs highly exaggerated
HHD's are a very interesting technology. Having worked on the design of HHD drives and the OS software support for them they can have some very interesting impacts on large data store design. 

IMO though, they will die out as a single unit entity and be replaced by (at least initially) SAS SLC SSD's paired with lower speed high capacity HDDs in arrays. For most classical mixed 70/30 workloads hybrid write structures can provide all the benefits of all SSD equivalents that cost much more. Though the dual physical unit is a risk, it's fairly low risk that separation would occur in a properly controlled environment. Dual unit also eliminates write wearout with a sync and replace SSD strategy.
J_Brandt
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J_Brandt,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/28/2014 | 3:01:46 PM
Re: Death of HHDs highly exaggerated
Like all evolutions of storage media, HHD will take its place in the capacity/speed/cost equation.  Folks with budgets, without the need for super speed will go the cheaper route.
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 1:36:11 PM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
@JCreasey, it seems what I've said is being misinterpreted. To restate:

1. SSD are much faster than enterprise HDD. This means the window for these HDD is closing fast, and SSD will replace them completely.

2. Bulk HDD are very slow. With MLC SSD prices falling rapidly, these solid state drives will begin to replace bulk hard drives in a few years.
JCreasey
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JCreasey,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 12:54:13 PM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
Well said: " I predict IOPS/GB will cause a general transition from bulk HDD to bulk SSD in a few years time. Issues such as low power usage and high packing density will add to the attractiveness of a technology that can get 15 or more IOPS/GB."

Therefore there is still a window of opportunity for (particulalry enterprise) HDD's for the next few years....which get's back to the original point of the thread .

I don't think anyone disagrees that SSD's (based on whatever final technology is used) will eventually be all there is and HDD's will be a thing of the past. We're not there yet though, and there is still some market left to leverage.
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 12:08:06 PM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
There is a point where the low IOPS of HDDs becomes a major issue even in bulk applications. We've seen a decline of IOPS/GB from around 15 (9GB 15K RPM) in the 1990's to today's 0.03 (5TB SATA drive).

The implication is data is much slower to get to. With MLC solid-state drive prices declining 20 percent or so annually, I predict IOPS/GB will cause a general transition from bulk HDD to bulk SSD in a few years time. Issues such as low power usage and high packing density will add to the attractiveness of a technology that can get 15 or more IOPS/GB.

One reason Google is a major SSD manufacturer (consuming internally) is that they are already well into that transition.
JCreasey
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JCreasey,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 11:44:06 AM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
As you said: "Capacity isn't everything, and tiering and caching mean that slow bulk HDD and an SSD top tier will deliver much better performance than a farm of HDDs will."

Tiering, caching and the need for immense data stores will give HDD life for many years to come in those areas that don't need huge IOPs.

 
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 11:18:59 AM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
@SachinEE, which is costlier depends on your yardstick. SSD might cost more per Terabyte, though I'd argue that we are nearing parity between entrprise HDD and MLC SATA SSD, but on a $/IOPS basis, one SSD is worth a couple of large arrays of HDD, which is a phenomenal price-performance edge.

Capacity isn't everything, and tiering and caching mean that slow bulk HDD and an SSD top tier will deliver much better performance than a farm of HDDs will.
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 7:15:24 AM
Re: Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
There a couple of other things we have to keep in mind while predicting the demise of HDDs. There have been predictions about the demise of desktop computers as well for quite some time now. But desktop computers have proved to be resilient and most of them use HDDs that will keep HDDs in business. Other thing is the cost. SSDs are still costlier than HDDs and not everyone can afford them.
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/25/2014 | 5:54:49 AM
Re : Last Gasp For Hard Disk Drives
@ Charlie Babcock, I can't agree more with you on this. As you have mentioned data centers where it is difficult to predict the demise of hard drives, I would like to add another thing that is developing countries. Technology is seen to trickle down to developing countries quite slowly. This factor might keep the hard drives in business for quite a bit of time in future.
joreilly925
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joreilly925,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/24/2014 | 6:31:48 PM
Re: Death of HHDs highly exaggerated
I think you were buying the FUD on SATA! I've built large SATA array and they worked just fine. One of them was 70 Petabytes!


Let's call it a day and let someone else comment.
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