Hard times for the hard drive: solid state storage surges
Deloitte predicts that in 2012 the storage world will likely reach a turning point. Although the traditional hard disk drive (HDD) is far from extinct, there will likely be a dramatic increase in adoption of solid state drive (SSD) technology across a number of markets.
By the end of 2012, storage for small mobile devices – such as MP3 players, smartphones and tablets – is likely to be over 90 percent SSDs44, versus just 20 percent in 2006. By year-end, up to 15 percent of laptops and netbooks are expected to use SSDs, four times higher than in 201045. Finally, even in the data center market – long an exclusive bastion of HDDs – SSDs could be used for up to 10 percent of new storage.
The hard drive is not dead by any means. Global storage demand in all forms continues to rise, and both storage technologies are likely to grow in 2012 and 201346. What has changed is SSD’s rapidly rising share in some markets.
Solid state drives are not new. The technology has been around for decades in various forms47, but has suffered from some fundamental limitations. While making a storage device out of silicon chips instead of spinning disks was technically possible, the resulting device had too little capacity and was too expensive. In 2005, the largest commercially available SSDs cost thousands of dollars and could hold only a few gigabytes (GB). And in 2008, a PC with a 64GB SSD drive cost $1,000 more than the same machine with an 800GB HDD.
SSDs have become steadily cheaper, following a Moore’s Law progression, with price per GB declining about 50 percent every 18 months. However, HDD prices have declined even faster than expected over the past three decades – at a remarkably rapid and constant rate of about 50 percent every 14 months48. Solid state drives are still roughly ten times more expensive per GB than hard drives. However, there are a number of other factors that are making storage buyers look beyond the price/GB metric.
Solid state drives may not be as large and affordable as hard drives, but their size and cost is sufficient for many applications – even computer use. Although HDDs will continue to be bigger and less expensive than SSDs, their capacity will increasingly overshoot the needs of most computers.
In the 1980s, many PC manufacturers and buyers questioned the need for the 20MB hard drive option, confident that no one could possibly require more than 10MB. However, rapid exhaustion of hard drive capacity quickly led to the belief that storage needs rise inexorably and that ‘there is no such thing as too much storage.’ Now, we could be seeing the end of that trend. Even in an era of 18 megapixel cameras, more MP3 music files than a person will ever listen to, and hundreds of hours of HD video, the capacity of high-end storage devices may be growing larger than the average consumer can use or justify49.
Even people who store massive amounts of data may not need a hard drive on every computer they own. In many markets, PC penetration is mirroring the adoption of smartphones, music players and tablets, with individuals owning multiple devices in the same category50. Laptops and netbooks are often used as secondary PCs, and for this purpose 120GB (or even 60GB) may be more than adequate – putting them into the range where SSDs can compete. Also, more and more consumer data is being stored or backed up in the cloud, potentially reducing the need for HDD-sized storage and making SSDs a viable option for a growing number of buyers.
The two biggest advantages of a solid state drive are size and power. On average, an SSD takes up half the space of an HDD, weighs half as much, and uses half the power. In a smartphone or similar sized device, these considerations virtually require the use of SSDs. Tablets and netbooks, with their small form factors and relatively small batteries, also benefit greatly from an SSD’s compactness and power efficiency. These benefits are less significant in standard laptops, but as ‘ultrabooks’ (thin and light laptops) become more popular, SSD use will likely grow51. Further, SSDs can be created with non-standard form factors, which allows for potential new designs and products.
Even corporate data centers are proving to be an interesting and surprising market for SSDs. Historically, data center storage purchases were driven almost entirely by cost per GB, meaning that SSDs were seldom considered. However an increasing number of data centers are facing physical constraints: they have a limited footprint; finite heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) capacity; and they can’t keep using more electrical power. All of a sudden, small, cool, power-sipping SSDs are becoming an attractive option for some locations52. The environmental benefits of SSDs are significant too. One study suggests that global data centers shifting even partly to SSDs could save 167,000 megawatt hours over a five year period53.
Solid state drives are also quieter, more reliable, and enable faster start up. SSDs are completely silent, which can be a critical advantage for music applications and quiet environments. They are also significantly more reliable. Devices that use SSDs are less sensitive to shock, and failures tend to be less catastrophic54. Devices that use SSDs also boot up to full functionality about 25 percent faster than devices using HDDs55.
SSD adoption has temporarily benefited from the disastrous flooding that hit Thailand in October 2011. Before the floods, half of all HDD parts were manufactured or assembled in the affected areas. The resulting plant closures and supply interruptions created a global HDD shortage and caused prices to spike 20-30 percent. Many device manufacturers could not procure enough HDDs and had to use SSDs instead to get products onto store shelves in time for the peak winter selling season. Others shifted toward SSDs because higher HDD prices narrowed the price premium and made SSD’s other advantages more compelling. Although normal HDD supply levels are expected to resume by late spring 2012, the increased momentum toward SSDs may prove difficult to reverse.
In the past, most consumers were not involved in picking their storage technology: they simply accepted whatever the manufacturer installed. But in 2012 and beyond, buyers may have the option to consciously choose between SSD and HDD storage. Many people do not know one technology from the other and will need to be educated about the costs and benefits of each. Consumers that hoard data will likely opt for the higher capacity of HDDs, while those most concerned about battery life or weight will likely choose SSDs.
At some point, hard drives may no longer be offered on some devices. But during the transition period, device manufacturers will need to adapt their sales processes, after-market support, and hardware designs so that buyers can get the full benefits of each technology.
Data centers will need to develop best practices around a more heterogeneous storage environment. Hybrid solutions that combine the speed and rapid access of SSDs with the superior storage capacity and price to GB ratio of HDDs are already being tested. The result could be performance synergies that go beyond the standard SSD benefits of reduced size and power consumption.
Deloitte Canada, as referenced in videos, podcasts, or online materials related to TMT Predictions 2012, refers to Deloitte & Touche LLP, the Canadian member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.
44Small mobile device include MP3 players, smartphones and tablets. Today, MP3 players represent almost all of the HDD storage in this market: there are some HDDs used in phones and tablets today, but less than 1 percent.
45Some PCs use HDDs only, some use SSDs only (as a pure HDD replacement), and a growing number are using hybrid SSD/HDD configurations. These attempt to offer the rapid boot speeds and access time of SSDs, but also the low cost per GB of HDDs. See: Hybrid hard drive: Dead end or the future of storage?, FierceCIO:TechWatch, 2 December 2011: http://www.fiercecio.com/techwatch/story/hybrid-hard-drive-dead-end-or-future-storage/2011-12-02
46Total storage growth estimates for 2012 and 2013 are based on non-public broker estimates published in November and December 2011.
47Origin of Solid State Drives, StorageReview, 20 March 2010: http://www.storagereview.com/origin_solid_state_drives
48A History of Storage Cost, Matthew Komorowski Web Page: http://www.mkomo.com/cost-per-gigabyte
49To Artfully Capture Memories, Try These Cameras, The New York Times, 6 December 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/technology/personaltech/to-artfully-capture-memories-try-these-cameras.html
50PC penetration has been rising for years, and in the US is forecast to be 1005 PCs per 1000 inhabitants. Table 1.3, Worldwide PC Market, eTForecasts, 2010 http://www.etforecasts.com/products/ES_pcww1203.htm
51Why 2012 Will be the Year of the Ultrabook, Wired, 21 November 2011: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/11/ultraportable-ultrabooks/
52CloudSigma adds SSDs to its public cloud, GigaOM, 8 November 2011: < ahref="http://gigaom.com/cloud/cloudsigma-adds-ssds-to-its-public-cloud/">http://gigaom.com/cloud/cloudsigma-adds-ssds-to-its-public-cloud/
53Electricity Savings from Data Center SSDs Could Power an Entire Country, Researcher Says, eWeek, 5 June 2009: http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Data-Storage/Researcher-Electricity-Savings-from-Data-Center-SSDs-Could-Power-an-Entire-Country-669508/
54When a hard drive fails, usually none of the data is retrievable without significant effort. SSDs tend to fail bit by bit (as it were) meaning that only smaller chunks of data are lost.
55Boot Time Comparison with 200GB RPM HD and 64GB SSD, SysAdminGear, 2007: http://sysadmingear.blogspot.com/2007/12/boot-time-comparasion-with-200gb-rpm-hd.html