Western Digital Hammers Down On MAMR, Not HAMR, For Spinning Hard Drives

Western Digital on Wednesday said it is investing in technology that will take spinning hard disk drives to 40 TBs and beyond in capacity as a way to meet big data and other large-capacity application needs going forward.

The San Jose, Calif.-based manufacturer of hard disk drives, flash storage, and systems featuring the two, demonstrated what it called the world's first MAMR, or microwave-assisted magnetic recording, hard drives, and discussed plans for bringing those drives to market.

While storage news, in general, is often more focused on flash and other non-volatile storage media, hard drives are still doing well, said Mike Cordano, Western Digital president and chief operating offer, during an event introducing the MAMR technology.

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Cordano, citing his company's own analysis of the storage market, said that by 2020, about 70 percent of the total storage capacity is expected to still reside on hard drives as opposed to flash or other media. "If you dig deeper, in the data center, that will be closer to 90 percent," he said.

Brendan Collins, vice president of hard drive product marketing for Western Digital, said that the demand for hard drives would continue to grow because flash storage costs about 15-times spinning drives on a cost-per-gigabyte basis.

To ensure that the cost difference between the two keeps hard drives competitive over time with flash storage in big data or other large-capacity requirements, the hard drive industry needs to find a good replacement for the current PMR, or perpendicular magnetic recording, technology which is starting to reach its limits in terms of capacity and data "writability," Collins said.

The storage industry is placing its hopes on HAMR, or heat-assisted magnetic recording, a technology that uses a small laser while recording data to heat the media as a way to increase data density. Western Digital is among those who are investing in HAMR, Collins said.

However, he said, HAMR technology is facing cost and reliability challenges because of the need to actually heat the media.

Western Digital's main focus going forward will be on MAMR technology, Collins said. With MAMR, a small microwave field is emitted by a spin torque oscillator located near the write pole of the disk read/write head. That microwave field lowers the magnetic field of the media at the point where data is being written. This allows the data writing to be done more densely without the need to heat the media.

That gives MAMR a 100-times better data writing lifetime than HAMR, letting Western Digital talk about hard drives with up to 40 TBs and more in capacity with 2.5 million hours of reliability and a five-year warranty, he said.

The MAMR-based drives fit in the same ecosystems as current PMR-based drives without the need for specific drive optimizations needed by HAMR-based drives, all while maintaining costs similar to those of PMR technology, Collins said. "With MAMR, you get all the gain without the pain," he said.

Western Digital on Wednesday demonstrated MAMR-based drives and expects samples to be available to customers in 2018. General availability is expected to start in 2019.

Lenny Sharp, senior director of enterprise hard drive product marketing for Western Digital, told CRN that MAMR-based hard drives would find a strong market despite the total cost of ownership and the higher performance benefits users get with SSDs and flash storage in general.

"The focus on hard drives is on cost-per-terabyte," Sharp said. "SSDs have a 15x cost-per-terabyte differential over capacity enterprise hard drives. Yes, you can now purchase 60-TB SSDs. But you need an American Express Black card to afford them."

Without MAMR technology, the cost-per-terabyte benefit of hard drives over SSDs would gradually fall over time, Sharp said. "MAMR is like hitting the rocket engine button on cost reduction," he said.

MAMR technology could eventually result in hard drives with capacities of 65 TBs to 80 TBs between 2027 and 2030, Sharp said. That capacity could rise if the storage industry moved away from today's standard 3.5-inch hard disk format to a larger standard, he said.

The demand for high-capacity spinning hard drives is definitely growing for certain use cases, said Dominic Daninger, vice president of engineering at Northern Computer Technologies, a Burnsville, Minn.-based custom system builder.

While client PCs and smaller servers are more and more likely to use SSDs than spinning drives, customers in the sciences and high-performance computing fields are storing the kind of capacities that keep spinning disks in demand, Daninger told CRN.

"Every once in a while, we will see an insatiable need for spinning drives," he said. "One of our clients is mapping the North Pole and the South Pole and needs a lot of capacity. Another client is the IceCube Neutrino Observatory project funded by the National Science Foundation which has sensors buried a half-mile under the ice. That chews up a lot of data."

There is clearly a need for spinning drives going forward, Daninger said. "I don't see any hard drive tombstones out there yet," he said. "Intel tells us their analysts are looking at big data, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computing, all of which require a lot of analysis and crunching of bid data. And a lot of that is stored on rotating media."