Comment When you are recovering from a long period of hard times and light appears at the end of the tunnel and gets closer and closer until you emerge into glorious daylight, you get a spring in your step and start making plans. Now you're back on your feet, the world becomes an oyster again, and you go off in different directions pursuing pearls. That's the feeling I get talking to Hitachi GST.
There are three hard disk drive companies making profits and Hitachi GST is one of them. It's feeling its technological oats, it's beginning to think about spreading its wings and there's a more confident air coming from the company. That's what four quarters of profit does for you when, a year or so ago, you were the subject of sell-off rumours.
The year of profit is due to disk market volume growth, a fully refreshed product line with component count reductions lowering costs, and overall cost base reductions such as the Mexico plant closing. So says Nick Kyriacou, the company's director for EMEA. It's just as well - the HDD market is facing slower growth in 2009.
After being accustomed to a 12-15 per cent annual unit shipment growth rate, it's looking at a 6-8 per cent rate next year. Let's assume that average system prices (ASPs) continue declining and that could mean the industry as a whole earning less revenue in 2009, putting pressure on the weaker players, the ones not making a profit, such as Fujitsu, Samsung, and Toshiba.
HGST and flash
What about solid state drives (SSD)? What does Hitachi GST think of these? Kyriacou said, carefully: "We're a storage company. SSD is part of the storage industry. We've not made any public announcements but, as a storage company, we must be seriously considering it."
Ah. With Seagate that makes two HHD manufacturers intending to, or thinking seriously about, adding SSD products alongside HDD product. Western Digital? I think I'll stick my neck out and say it would be almost bizarre if WD wasn't carefully evaluating SSD technology as an augmentation of its product line.
Kyriacou said SSDs had appeal not just for higher IOPS but also for good IOPS per watt. He doesn't think SSDs are as interesting as they once appeared for notebooks though, not at HDD capacity points. Fair enough for the 8-16GB capacity netbooks, but at present, SSDs don't offer enough of a performance or battery life boost and are costly as well for notebooks needing 150-250GB or more of persistent storage.
He says Hitachi's latest 500GB 2.5-inch mobile drive has a low enough power draw to make it very hard for notebook SSDs to provide any significant battery life extension compared to it at all. He doesn't see notebook SSD use becoming mainstream at HDD capacity points.
However, Samsung has just announced its 256GB SSD for notebooks that does sequential writes at up to 200MB/sec (seq' reads: 220MB/sec), draws 1.1 watts in average use and can extend battery life, Samsung says, by up to 40 minutes compared to an equivalent notebook with a 7200rpm hard drive. We don't know the price of this but, given the pace of development and level of competition in the notebook flash arena, we could be seeing much greater SSD penetration there by the end of next year.
Kyriacou said it was far too expensive for new entrants to the NAND flash foundry business to emerge. We all know there is too much flash fab capacity for the market now anyway. Apart from that comment, meaning Hitachi would buy in flash chips if it entered the enterprise SSD market, he didn't offer thoughts on SSD controller sourcing or interfaces.
Hitachi's engineers seem able to keep on getting more out of current technology. The latest 500 gig mobile drive has a 375Gbit/sq in areal density using TMR (Tunnelling Magneto-Resistive) heads and perpendicular recording technology. The company's engineers have demonstrated a 610Gbit/sq in areal density products with the same head technology. This means it wouldn't need to move to the next head technology, CPP-GMR (Current Perpendicular to the Plane - Giant Magneto-Resistive), until it needed to progress beyond that level.
Kyriacou said: "Developing existing technology tends to be a lower-risk option [than introducing new technology]." He thinks that areal density growth has been up to 60 per cent a year and that this may continue.
Once CPP-GMR heads are used then perpendicular recording may run out of steam and either bit-patterned media (BPM) or thermally-assisted recording introduced. His feeling is that bit-patterning will be used: "A year ago there was a diversity of opinion about BPM and thermally-assisted recording. Now there is a consensus that patterned media will come first."
Intuition says that adding a heating laser function to a read head is going to be more difficult than introducing and developing CPP-GMR heads on their own.
Kyriacou says Hitachi GST has more patents in the HDD space than any other supplier and is very confident that Hitachi can keep up if not lead in areal density technology developments.
External drive market
It is notable that Hitachi GST does not sell external storage drives for use as home and small office/home office (SOHO) backup devices or media players like Seagate's Free Agents or its Maxtor One Touches or, indeed, Western Digital's Passport line. Asked about this Kyriacou said: "It's an area we don't play in. The disadvantage is we don't have access to a fast-growing market. An advantage is that we don't compete with our customers." La Cie, for example, is a Hitachi GST customer.
Developments in this area are ongoing with storage servers developing to backup up connected hosts, to provide media serving to TVs, network access to files, and remote access to their content over the web.
Kyriacou then said: "But it's such a big part of the market I would be very surprised if we were not assessing being in that space."
Well, well. This is not a company on the ropes. This is a supplier quite determined to extend its product line where feasible and quite confident it can hold its own in the HDD technology stakes. By the end of next year, we might expect Hitachi GST's hard drives to have 40-60 per cent more capacity than they do now, meaning a 750GB 2.5-inch drive for example, a Hitachi enterprise flash drive to be a possibility, and for Hitachi to have signalled its external drive intentions more clearly. These are the three pearls we might find in Hitachi's oyster. ®