Enterprises still waiting for SSD prices to drop

Market research shows flash isn't denting hard drive sales yet, which is attributed mainly to still-high solid-state drive prices.

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Although solid-state drives are gaining acceptance for business use, they won't make a significant dent in the sales of traditional enterprise hard-disk drives any time soon, according to market research firms that study the data storage market. That's because SSD prices haven't dropped enough yet.

Statistics from IHS iSuppli Corp., a division of IHS Inc. in Englewood, Colo., showed that hard-disk drives (HDDs) dominated the enterprise-drive market in 2012, at 97% share, compared to solid-state drives (SSDs), at a mere 3%. IHS iSuppli projects that enterprise SSDs will gradually take more of the market, but even by 2016, they will reach only 9.9%, while enterprise HDDs hold sway at 90.1%.

SSD prices apparently still limit their use to the highest performance applications.

"For certain applications, [enterprise users] have to use something" that provides higher performance, said Fang Zhang, a storage analyst at El Segundo, Calif.-based IHS iSuppli. "So, they do adopt pure SSD. But, for the majority of the market, they just don't need that much."

SSD adoption continues to have only minimal impact on demand for 10,000 RPM and 15,000 RPM HDDs, and essentially no effect on sales of the high-capacity HDDs used in storage arrays, according to John Rydning, a research vice president focusing on HDDs and semiconductors at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp.

Rydning noted that last year the HDD industry shipped 53% more TBs for enterprise applications than it did in 2011. Driving the growth was demand for high-capacity HDDs, especially from large cloud providers that receive direct shipments from disk makers or other non-traditional channels, he said. The high-capacity HDDs are generally SATA-based, running at 7,200 RPM.

As for performance HDDs, Rydning said he does not see "a rapid substitution of SSDs for 15,000 RPM HDDs in the near future.

"Despite what many believe is a case of SSDs cannibalizing the demand for 2.5-inch 15K RPM hard-disk drives, we continue to see strong demand for [them]," Rydning said. "There are still many enterprise applications where the performance and capacity of 2.5-inch 15K RPM hard-disk drives are a good economical solution."

Brendan Collins, vice president of product marketing at San Jose, Calif.-based Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc. (HGST), a Western Digital-owned company that manufactures enterprise drives, said via email that the demand for small form factor (SFF) 2.5-inch 15,000 RPM drives continues to expand. He attributed that largely to SSD prices. Multi-level cell SSDs, one of the least-expensive types of solid-state storage, are still eight times the price of high-performance hard drives.

"This will likely result in SFF 15K drives shipping for more generations," Collins said.

Will helium hold up HDD prices?

The biggest trend that Rydning currently sees is the growing adoption of HDDs that use more disks and heads per drive to boost capacity than in the past. The average capacity per shipped drive for enterprise applications increased by 35% between 2011 and 2012, while the number of bits stored per inch on rotating disk, known as the areal density, rose by only 15%, according to Rydning. Those percentages indicate the drive vendors are achieving higher capacities by adding disks and heads to each enterprise HDD, not by increasing the areal density.

For instance, HDD vendors recently introduced 2.5-inch 10,000 RPM HDDs with four disks per drive, up from the previous maximum of three. The 2.5-inch 15,000 RPM HDDs currently have a maximum of two disks per drive, but products with three disks per drive are due soon, Rydning noted.

Helium-filled drives that HGST expects to ship later this year will facilitate seven disks per drive in a 3.5-inch 7,200 RPM HDD, rather than the current maximum of five disks. The helium-filled HDDs reduce air resistance of the heads, minimize friction on the rotating disks and use less power.

The significance of the trend of more disks per drive is that prices may not drop as quickly as they did in the past, because the ability of HDD vendors to reduce material costs becomes more challenging, Rydning said.

The 2011 flooding in Thailand that hit key manufacturing plants and constricted the supply chain still has an impact on HDD pricing. Rydning said the blended average sale price (ASP) for HDDs targeted at enterprise applications remains 20% higher than the pre-flood ASP. In particular, the price of high-capacity 7,200 RPM HDDs, for which demand is growing, remains elevated.

However, promising new technologies may put manufacturers back on track for a steady stream of price reductions in the future. For instance, HGST recently announced a nanotechnology breakthrough that Currie Munce, HGST's vice president of research, claims could enable the company to deliver areal density improvements of 20% to 25% per year. The nanolithography technology, which is due by the end of the decade, ultimately could help to keep in check the cost per GB and watts per TB, according to Munce.

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