As SSDs ascend, how does Seagate plan to stay relevant?

Disk drive maker readies its first solid-state drives, delves into hybrids and advanced storage technologies

It's no surprise that as the market leader for hard disk drives, Seagate Technology LLC still sees a long future for the venerable technology.

That's despite physical limitations in platter-and-spindle technology that has made it hard to increase read speeds, also called access times, as well as all the hype around competing flash memory-based solid-state drives (SSDs).

But conventional hard drives "still offer the best dollars per gigabyte" ratio, said Stefan Hellmold, Seagate's vice president for marketing and business development, during a presentation last week at Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.

That advantage will attract consumers looking to store increasing amounts of video and other media on their desktop PCs, businesses running servers with fast-growing databases, and data warehouses or companies wanting to move off less-convenient tape storage.

Seagate is not alone. In a report earlier this summer, IDC predicts worldwide hard drive shipments will grow an average of 9% per year between 2007 and 2012.

SSDs "will curtail HDD demand in some markets, but the HDD industry will shrug off these and other competing storage technologies to attain consecutive years of record-setting HDD shipments and revenue," wrote IDC analyst John Rydning.

Seagate is not standing still. For one, it plans to release its first SSDs sometime next year.

Hellmold also mentioned two ways that Seagate plans to add value to hard drives.

The first is to ship local encryption capabilities on portable drives such as its new BlackArmor enterprise USB drive.

"You need to put [encryption] close to the data for ultimate security," said Mike Alexenko, Seagate's executive director of client security market development.

BlackArmor complies with the IEEE 1667 standard intended to make it easy to connect portable storage devices to different computers while protecting its data from nonauthenticated users.

BlackArmor doesn't conflict with Microsoft's BitLocker encryption technology used by Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008 and the upcoming Windows 7, said Monty Forehand, engineering director at Seagate. It also works with Microsoft's Group Policy and Active Directory technologies, he added.

Seagate is also readying a second-generation of notebook PC drives that embed SSD-like flash memory on board regular hard drives.

Seagate introduced its first hybrid notebook drive, the Momentus 5400 PSD, last October. It came with 256MB of flash memory and spun only 10% of the time when operational, the company said.

The first generation of hybrid drives has not been a huge success, Hellmold acknowledged. But the upcoming advanced storage drives (ASDs) will solve performance problems by managing what is cached in flash itself, rather than letting the operating system do it, as the Momentus does, he said.

As a result, the ASDs may "not be as fast as an SSD, but they will be faster than a hard drive," Hellmold said.

Seagate demonstrated two identical notebooks booting and loading several applications. The notebook equipped with an ASD hybrid drive booted and loaded 40% faster.

Hellmold declined to say when the new ASD drives would be available, or what their specifications and prices would be. They will be aimed at enterprise and high-end consumer users, filling the niche that 15,000-rpm drives, which get too hot to be used in laptops, would otherwise fill, he said.

ASDs, when they arrive, will face stiff competition from products such as Intel Corp.'s Turbo Memory, which has been around for several years and is also meant to accelerate boots and loading of key applications, said Alan Niebel, CEO of Web-Feet Research Inc., a storage analyst firm in Monterey, Calif.

Seagate will also face the problem of trying to build demand for its ASDs alone, as other storage vendors are actively steering hybrid drives, he said.

Seagate "needs to do a lot more user education, as well as show that ASDs will not only perform better [than the older hybrid drives] but also show a good price point, he said. Otherwise, "this could be one of those things where you throw it at the wall, and if it sticks, so be it."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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