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Weekly Column

Shameless Self-Promotion: Bob's Disk Drive

Status: [CLOSED] comments (241)
By Robert X. Cringely

For nine years and 492 columns I have described new companies and new technologies always with the qualification that I own no shares and have no financial stake in them. This statement is for two reasons: 1) I am poor and can't afford to jump into gee-whiz technology deals, and; 2) my contract with PBS requires that I make it very clear if I have a financial stake in the product or company I am writing about. I am not prohibited from writing about my investments, but I have to make it clear when I am financially involved.

Well this time -- for the first time ever -- I DO have a financial interest in the technology I am writing about. In fact, the whole thing is pretty much my idea. And while my writing about it may appear to be shameless self-promotion (heck, it IS shameless self-promotion) at least I can be sure it is ACCURATE shameless self-promotion. And since I made a presentation on the underlying technology last weekend at an ACM conference, I figure the cat is out of the bag anyway.

As many readers know, I have a consulting business that predates this column by six years, and I have worked on various technology projects over that time, so this is not new behavior. It is just the first time one of those projects is newsworthy. I wish they all were, but sadly not.

This story starts a year ago when I wrote a column on the exploding electric bills of large data centers. You'll find that column among this week's links. In subsequent weeks I heard from many frustrated managers of huge hosting facilities and even had a few meetings trying to help them figure out ways to save energy and to save ON energy, which is a completely different thing. What became clear to me in those meetings is that the culprit here is storage -- the energy consumption of modern disk drives.

While processor companies like Intel and AMD had spent billions trying to lower the energy consumption of their chips, the disk drive companies had done very little to save energy on storage, other than to point to increases in areal density (the amount of data that can be packed onto a storage medium) as proof that both cost and energy consumption were dropping in terms of dollars- or watts-per-gigabyte, if not in terms of dollars-per-month. Disks can be spun down, too, but that's no thanks to the disk drive companies, either.

Since disk storage is responsible for consuming 30 percent of the energy in your PC and up to 50 percent of the energy in a data center, it seemed to me that this would be a good area to look for improvements. Add to this the problem that in this world of YouTube and Sarbanes-Oxley no data center has enough storage, it becomes clear that we need disk drives that hold more, cost less, and use less energy.

So I found one.

Two old friends of mine, Anil Nigam and Jim White, and their company, Antek Peripherals, Inc., had been working for years on technology for a sort of hyper-floppy drive using metal foil for the recording medium. At the time they were aiming their work toward digital cameras, but I asked if the same technology could be used in a non-removable form inside a computer disk drive? And if it could be used that way, what would be the effect on price, performance, reliability, and energy consumption? The answers were stunning: they could design new families of disk drives that held up to three times as much data in the same space, were more reliable, actually cheaper to build, and used 70-95 percent less energy to run than the current state of the art.

For a data center operator, simply swapping disk drives could increase storage by three times while decreasing total energy consumption by a third. This is a huge attraction for big businesses and big hosting companies, not just because it lowers their electric bills but because it may mean they can avoid building more data centers entirely.

But was it too good to be true?

Anil and Jim are no yokels when it comes to disk drives, having about 50 years of experience between them. Anil co-founded SyQuest, an early competitor to Iomega. And Jim is an academic who formerly worked on disk drive design at IBM and presently earns royalties on most of the disk drive heads manufactured in the world. And the metal foil disk technology they developed had been patented years before. Issued patents are a rarity for leading-edge technologies, but this technology had been leading by a decade, only nobody knew it.

Now we had to start talking to disk drive companies, recording head companies, manufacturers of metal foil, and of course big customers, validating the technology and lining up potential partners, which is what has occupied part of my time over the last several months. In doing so we came up with a few more technical advantages, too.

The technology in question replaces the aluminum or glass platter in your hard disk drive with a "platter" made from stainless steel or titanium foil that is 22 microns or 25 microns thick, respectively. The materials cost more but we use so much less of it (the disk is so incredibly thin) that the total material cost is substantially less. This "floppy" material has the same kind of magnetic coatings used on standard disk drives and our drives live on the same technology growth curve as those others. The way we obtain greater storage density is simply by putting more platters in a drive (say 12-15 instead of 4-5 in an enterprise 3.5-inch drive) because they are much thinner and can be stacked closer together. The only parts of the drive that are significantly different are the platters and the heads and the heads vary only in having an extra slot. There is no rocket science here, but what science there is is patented.

The advantage of our drives goes beyond enterprise applications. We are able to build cheaper drives, for example, because our platters cost less to make and the nature of our flying heads is such that dust is sucked away from the head-disk interface, meaning the drives do not have to be assembled in a clean room. Also, where current platters are individually polished then sputtered, our metal foil can be polished and sputtered in giant rolls then die cut as needed, keeping costs down and manufacturing flexibility up.

Because of the dramatically smaller rotating mass, our drives can use smaller spindle motors that cost less, weigh less, and use less energy. Our 3.5-inch drives can use the spindle motor from a 1-inch drive. For super-high-end applications we can make 30,000-RPM drives that will appeal to the Oracle and DB2 crowd. Our PC drives will cost less and use one quarter the power.

This power savings is key and opens up whole new product categories, like tape replacement. Computer tape drives are a $10 billion business, but the dirty little secret is nobody really knows if they have the data or not, since tapes are not a reliable archival solution due to print-through and environmental deterioration. Disk drives would be better but disk drives cost too much. Not anymore. Our projected tape drive alternative costs $0.20 per gigabyte to tape's $0.18, but ours has greater reliability and a seek rate that is 720 times faster. The tape drive uses 18 watts while our tape replacement drive uses three watts.

The nature of our drives is such that they are very resistant -- almost immune -- to shock damage, making head crashes a non-event because the flexible metal foil yields to the head, pushed away by a layer of compressed air, rather than being struck by it. So our drives are perfect for notebook computers and portable music and video players because they are lighter, tougher, and make batteries last 70+ percent longer.

In an iPod, for example, our 60-gig drive would be the same size as the iPod’s 30-gig drive, but ours wouldn't need head-parking or "uh-oh I'm falling" circuitry, so it would be cheaper to build. And while that 30-gig drive takes five seconds to spin up for each gulp of music, our 60-gig drive spins up in 0.4 seconds. Map the area under that power consumption curve and you'll see that battery life can be extended dramatically or smaller and cheaper batteries can be substituted.

But ours isn't the only new disk technology coming to market. Windows Vista will support the new hybrid disk drives that add flash memory as a sort of L4 cache that can be read first, either allowing the platter not to spin up at all in certain circumstances or at least to provide faster access as the platter is accelerating. The only problem with hybrid disk drives is they cost more -- a LOT more -- just like Vista costs more than XP.

Our metal foil drive costs less, not more, and spins up so quickly that data can be read from disk as fast or faster than it can be read from flash. Who needs a hybrid disk drive?

Who needs flash in general as a mass storage technology? Our 10-gigabyte 0.85-inch drive can spin up, read or write data, then shut down again, all in less time than it takes to perform the same task using flash while being just as resistant to shock damage and more resistant to heat. That 10-gig drive will cost $24 compared to $240 for 10 gigs of flash, so we expect that our technology will be used for any application requiring more than 2-gigs of storage. The obvious market here is mobile phones, which will become media storage devices.

The market potential is one billion computer disk drives and one billion mobile phone drives per year. And it all starts around this time next year when metal foil drives will begin to appear under well-known brand names. You see I'm not really starting a disk drive company. Now THAT would be stupid.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (241)

If you take a look at the information at those sites, you will find that the notion that hard drives consume 1/3 of the energy in PCs is incorrect. In laptops, they only consume 2-3 watts of the laptop's 15-25 watt consumption (DC Power), while in desktops they consume about 10 watts of the desktop's 50 to 150 watt power consumption (DC Power). That is hardly 1/3.

Using steel or titanium in hard drives sounds promising due to the properties of metal but I fail to see the benefit that they would have over aluminum in terms of cost, performance and power consumption. Steel and titanium are both heavier than aluminum, which would mandate that more electricity is used to move them. Aluminum is cheaper than either of the two metals, so prices would increase if hard drives used them. Steel and titanium are metals like aluminum, so they will be just as flat from the factory; no lack of friction will result from using them. Without any change in the frictional characteristics of the platters when compared to conventional platters, I fail to see how they will be able to spin three times higher than conventional platters, as the friction is the chief reason preventing 18,000 RPM hard drives from reaching the market right now. The friction causes them to make so much noise and generate so much heat that it is unfeasible to bring them to market. The only potential benefit that I would see from using either titanium or steel platters, at the expense of harming the drives' other characteristics, would be in reliability as particles striking the drives will not do as much damage as they do currently, and the platters will be far more able to withstand shocks. Besides that, I see no benefit.

Richard | Nov 04, 2006 | 12:07PM

stil about storage but related to last week's Google's LD8:

if you do the math, you conclude that *10%* of an LD8 filled with Barracudas 750GB will get you 1,2 Petabytes:


stil plenty of space for CPUs, UPSs, AC units and support and vibration dampening infrastructure!

david mc coelho | Nov 05, 2006 | 8:09AM

Richard, how about reading the article before attacking it?
It's not just a substitution of materials that is proposed, it is a floppy disk instead of a hard disk. There are structural differences and advantages to one over the other.

glenn | Nov 06, 2006 | 8:48PM