HAMR smashes storage barrier, 60T hard drives on horizon

This article has been updated to correct the date of the grant awarded by the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program.

Does anyone even remember the supposed Y2K crisis? Government agencies and private companies all scrambled to update their code to prevent the world from ending when the year flipped over. Every computer was supposed to suddenly think it was 1900 and, I don’t know, start ordering extra gas for the streetlights.

Either it really wasn’t a big problem or everyone worked really hard to get it fixed in time, but it was certainly the focus of everyone’s attention at that time.

So why am I bringing it up now? Storage. The reason for the Y2K crisis was because when people were programming computers back in the 1970s, they decided to go with a two-digit date field.

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They thought that if they used all four digits, which would keep computers humming along until the year 9999, that it would cost too much money. To get even an extra 10M of storage required huge multi-disk cores for mainframes at the time, and they were expensive, so every byte really did count.

Today, storage is almost an afterthought. Your consumer-oriented, bargain basement laptop probably comes with a 500G hard drive, and most desktops have at least a terabyte of storage capacity, something that would have cost millions and millions of dollars to support 30 years ago.

Now, Seagate is moving storage into the realm of the ridiculous with the announcement that it has finally perfected its HAMR (heat-assisted magnetic recording) technology and could soon ship drives capable of 1 terabyte of storage per square inch. So a standard 3.5-inch desktop drive would have 6T of storage capacity, and a 2.5-inch laptop drive would have 2T.

Within the next decade, the company expects to deliver 60T for 3.5-inch drives and 20T for 2.5-inch drives.

And eventually, Seagate says, it expects to “break through the so-called superparamagnetic limit of magnetic recording” and deliver storage capacities up to 50T per square inch. There are plenty of admins in server rooms and storage facilities who wouldn’t mind seeing that.

Seagate has been experimenting with this technology for years. In 2001 the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program gave the company a five-year, $10 million grant for its research and development work. Few organizations feel the weight of the data deluge more than government agencies, so the prospect of super-capacity storage draws officials' interest.

The reason that current drives can’t have such high capacity is because when you try and pack too much data onto a magnetic medium, the bits tend to blend together. What Seagate has done with HAMR is to use a laser to heat the medium, making it more susceptible to the magnetic write head. Data can be packed onto the drive, yet without the laser heating the bit, it remains stable and can’t bleed over.

I suppose this could mean that computers will generate even more heat, which might be a problem with laptops in particular, but that’s a peripheral problem that can be worked out with relative ease compared to the main storage-capacity dilemma solved by HAMR.

It may be a little while before HAMR drives start shipping, but not too long if Seagate has anything to say about it. Significantly, the company says the price of its new drives will be comparable to current drives.

The funny thing is, although HAMR represents a giant leap forward, I doubt many people (outside of those running data centers) will really notice. A new laptop soon could have 20T of storage, and the buyer will simply shrug and say, “OK, fine” and move on. Such is what we have come to expect in the world of storage.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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