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Howard Marks
Howard Marks
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SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade

Despite falling SSD prices, spinning disks will still be the better bargain through 2020.

I regularly hear people, including many that should know better, predicting that in just a few years we’ll evict all the hard drives from our data centers as SSDs become less expensive than spinning disks. While the decline in SSD prices has been dramatic over the last year or so, I’m betting that hard drives will still be going strong in 2020.

Today, if you shop carefully online, you can buy a general purpose enterprise SSD, such as Intel’s DC S3700 for about $2.65/GB or a read oriented drive like the Intel DC S3500 for $1.30/GB. By comparison, a 4TB nearline SATA hard disk such as Western Digital’s RE or Seagate’s Constellation cost under $400 or $0.09/GB. Interestingly, consumer/laptop SSDs are well below the magic $1/GB level with Crucial’s M500 selling for about $0.59/GB -- about what hard drives cost in 2005.

Over the past few years, flash memory prices have fallen at an average of 35% a year. Hard drive prices declined at a similar rate or even greater rate in the past, but the trend has flattened out of late. In part, this is a one-time perturbation caused by the flooding in Thailand two years ago, which caused a shortage of both drives and drive components. Prices have just recently returned to their pre-flood levels as the drive vendors have re-filled their supply and distribution channels.

The truth is the cost of a hard disk hasn’t really fallen in 10 years or more. Most SATA hard drives sell for somewhere between $70 and $200, as they have for years. Of course, the capacity of those drives has increased tenfold since 2005, when a 320GB hard disk cost $130. Today, that $130 will buy you a 3TB desktop hard disk, or a 1TB nearline drive.

Another factor affecting drive hard drive prices is the reduced competition resulting from the consolidation of the industry to essentially three vendors: Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital. However, Western Digital runs HGST as an arms-length subsidiary, which theoretically makes HGST a fourth player.

[Read Howard Marks' analysis of Seagate's new Kinetic Open Storage Platform in "Seagate Boosts Disk Drive Intelligence."]

More than a simple competition, the cost of hard drives is driven by increases in drive capacity, which have stalled recently as drive vendors reach the limits of perpendicular recording technology’s ability to squeeze more bits per square inch of drive platter. The most recent density advancements, such as helium-filled drives from HGST, are one-time tricks that get the drive vendors a little breathing room. But once you play that card and cram seven platters into a standard size drive ,there’s no nine platter or 11 platter follow up.

Still, if we assume that SSD prices will fall at their historical 35% annual rate and hard drive prices will fall at a more conservative 15% by 2020, the enterprise SSD will cost almost 13 cents a gigabyte, more than the hard drive costs today, while the 20TB drives the hard drive vendors are promising for 2020 will cost under 3 cents a GB. The price difference will have shrunk from 30:1 to around 5:1. If drive prices fall at a closer to historical 25%, they’ll still be a tenth the cost of SSDs at the end of the decade.

Nonetheless, SSDs will continue to displace spinning disks in primary storage applications, where their low cost per IOP and low latency are more important than simple capacity costs. In fact, for greybeards like this humble reporter, SSDs -- even enterprise SSDs -- have reached the point where their prices are in line with our gut feel for what storage should cost for OLTP and other latency sensitive applications. Spinning disks will be relegated to secondary storage and applications such as media stores, where streaming throughput is more important than random IOPS.

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/24/2014 | 7:13:35 PM
re: SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade
I have to agree in principal with Brian. The price of a 500GB hard drive is not likely to fall much lower. I takes a fixed amount of cost to make a hard drive whether it is 50GB or 50TB. (heads, case, motor, etc) Case in point, the price of a 250GB HD is 49.99 at a major chain, a 500GB HD is 54.99, and the price of a 1TB drive is 59.99.

The price per GB reduction is on Larger drives. I expect that the price of a 250GB SSD and a 250GB Hard drive will be equal before very long. Probably long before 2020.

Then there is the whole concept of Flash on a DIMM that will be available soon. This eliminates the cost of the case and should drive the price even lower for 250GB to 1TB Flash storage.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/28/2013 | 5:12:55 PM
re: SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade
At some point, size doesn't matter. I don't need a 20TB drive. I've got a 120GB SSD drive in my laptop and I've got 20GB free. That's probably enough for the life of this laptop for me. So, I'd just rather see the price come down on 200 - 500GB SSD drives rather than huge efforts placed into making SSD drives bigger.

Second, why don't we see more efforts to combine different kinds of storage tech together? I can go buy a 64GB xD card the size of my pinky fingernail for $50. I realize that storage is slower, but why can't we get some intelligent caching algorithms like Apple uses in its laptops to use that as a level 2 cache. If more capacity is needed, maybe a few platters of traditional spinning drives could be thrown as a level 3.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/28/2013 | 1:12:21 PM
re: SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade
The one thing that your commentary did not take into account from a datacentre point of view is power. I understand that powered up and operational hard drives (especially high speed RPM ones) use considerable more power than the SSD equivalent and generate considerably more heat (which adds to the cooling costs). So the break even point between the two technologies cannot be measured without taking this into effect. For smaller business database application servers the SSD will provide much higher performance (and potentially reliability) using SSD than requiring the installation of a high performance RAID controller with the minimum number of hard drives to make it work at speeds close to the SSD drive.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/20/2013 | 10:52:36 PM
re: SSDs Cheaper Than Hard Drives? Not In This Decade
At a base level I agree with you but I do think that the price delta between SSD and HDD will become much smaller in the coming years. If so for many sophisticated users (Enterprise IT or techy consumer) there's a price / capacity point (for SSD) that makes us switch to SSDs because we've had enough of HDD's and the SSD experience was too good to not do. Even if I'm correct for just a small segment of the computing environment (Enterprise or Consumer) the loss in volume for HDDs will end up changing the dynamics (research investment, manufacturing improvement investments) and therefore accelerate the diminishing delta between SSDs and HDDs.
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