In just three months the hard disk drive industry has put flesh on the bones of its Storage Technology Alliance and pretty much decided on HAMR as the way forward, judging by WD and Xyratex pronouncements.
The hard disk drive industry trade body IDEMA (International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association) has set up the Advanced Storage Technology Consortium (ASTC) with founding members Hitachi GST, Marvell, Seagate, Western Digital and Xyratex, for "the formation of collaborative joint research initiatives among and between storage industry participants, customers, suppliers, universities and laboratories to harmonise in a common direction on the future of next generation storage technologies."
In other words, the consortium will decide between heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) or bit-patterned media (BPM) as the main replacement for today's PMR (perpendicular magnetic recording) technology when it runs out of steam around the 1Tbit/in2 level in a few years' time, with the overlapping track-based Shingled Write technology as a potential stopgap. The costs involved in developing a HAMR or BPM technology are so widespread across the industry supply chain that they are too great for any one company to bear.
The StorageTechnology Alliance (STA) was set up inside IDEMA in August by Hitachi GST, Seagate and Western Digital for "the formation of collaborative joint research initiatives among and between storage industry participants, customers, suppliers, universities and laboratories" – which is pretty much the same purpose.
The latest IDEMA statement makes no mention of the STA but it is blindingly obvious it has morphed into the ASTC and gained members, a structure and a large budget. Idema tells us that the companies above are tier 1 members. Then there are tier 2 and 3 members, which include LSI, Texas Instruments, Fuji Electric, Heraeus, Intevac, KLA-Tencor and Veeco – making 12 founding members in all. Any other Idema member can join.
The ASTC's dashing dozen aim to recruit more members - multi-million dollar budgets have to come from somewhere - from across the global supply chain for the disk drive industry, and, running in parallel, identify specific focus areas and research projects for its first year of operation.
Through an executive council it will create and direct co-operative research endeavours across the entire supply chain. Membership fees are set in a tiered structure based on storage industry revenue. The consortium will also seek financial support from governments and associated laboratories. Technology projects will be identified and funded through a volunteer committee formed by staff from ASTC members.
The ASTC will vastly expand investment in university research projects, focusing its multi-million dollar budget on critical areas of next-generation storage technologies. We don't know where the multi-million dollar budget is going to come from, assuming that it will be the members though. Nor do we know how many millions there are in it and whether it exists as set-aside cash already.
It's possible that members will commit funding in line with their membership tier. What, if any, structured payback there will be for this gift or loan of cash is not known either.
HAMR or BPM?
The ASTC states in its FAQ that "The first priority for the alliance will be to develop data and industry direction on which of the two technologies (HAMR or BPM ) may be implemented first in mass production."
It has this to say about HAMR and BPM technologies:
Both technologies – HAMR and BPM – hold promise for driving areal density far beyond about a terabit per square inch, and ultimately, we expect the industry to use both techniques in tandem to drive areal density beyond 10 Tbits/in2. HAMR and BPM are complementary technologies. A key technical challenge in scaling to higher areal density is the thermal stability of the media.
There are two approaches to pushing the thermal limits of the media to higher areal density. One direction is to enable scaling to smaller data bits without having to reduce the physical grains size in the magnetic media. The other is to increase the magnetic stiffness of the media materials.
BPM technology addresses the first pathway through intentional patterning of the bits into ‘islands’ rather than isolated grains. HAMR addresses how to write higher coercivity media to enable the second pathway. To achieve the highest possible areal densities, both technologies will likely be necessary.
It anticipates a new technology will be needed in the 2014/2015 period. So, the key question; which technology will come first; HAMR or BPM?
The ASTC FAQ says: "It is still too early in the development stage to make a definitive decision."
Tell that to Western Digital and Xyratex, whose executives have been telling financial analysts and investors they think HAMR could come first. On that basis it looks like the choice for HAMR could be a done deal as far as Western Digital and Xyratex are concerned.
The ASTC represents fast and positive progress on the STA base and, with its wider membership, should realistically hope to accelerate the pace of disk drive technology development so as to enable all of us to benefit from affordable disk drives in the future with the increased capacities that our digital universe will need. ®