Analysis: Where disk storage will end up next

Analysis: Where disk storage will end up next

A new era is underway for hard disks. The future is more than just PCs and servers - disk storage is now heading for all sorts of once unlikely places such as home electronics, cars and most importantly television.

Many will already have heard of Tivo, the hard disk-based digital video recorder (DVR) which not only records the stuff you tell it to, but also stuff it knows is similar and which it therefore thinks you might also like.

The next step is the home media server, says Rob Pait, the director of global consumer electronics marketing at Seagate. This takes the concept of the intelligent DVR and adds the ability to control and catalogue any digital media.

"I see a few technologies converging, such as online digital music purchasing and wireless home video over 802.11g networks," Pait says. "The high end trend is to have one home media server per house and control all the media on it from any TV. In the future it could be e-books and e-newspapers too."

The hard disks used in this type of server are different from those used in data applications, he adds. "With a PC drive, you want to push as big a burst out as possible, but for digital media it's how consistently you can match the throughput to the application's needs. If you fill the buffer too fast, it rejects data and the drive has to resend it."

Hard disk manufacturers have offered tweaked AV (audio-visual) drives for years, but the tweaks were proprietary. That is changing now, as earlier this summer ANSI's T13 committee approved a new standard command set to support streaming media applications.

This standard will make it easier to develop software for new devices, Pait says: "DVRs have a hundred different operating systems and environments - Microsoft is trying to move in but so are others. Most development is still in-house."

He adds, "80GB is the sweetspot for DVRs, 40GB is entry level, and there's a lot of interest in 160GB drives."

The immediate challenge is high definition TV (HDTV), as it requires nine times the bandwidth of conventional TV. This needs faster hard disk interfaces such as Serial-ATA 2, and either bigger drives or multi-drive systems.

It could also mean the average IT administrator having more storage to manage at home than at work.

Companies such as Seagate are also having to overhaul all aspects of their organisation to meet the demands of the consumer electronics manufacturers. For example, their supply chain requirements are quite different from those of PC assemblers.

Not only do the manufacturers need help designing hard drives in, but the drives must be quieter and cooler so fans are not needed. And their logistics staff must know that they cannot treat these new devices quite as roughly as a solid-state set-top box.

"The next big thing will be mobile - small is the next black," Pait says. "You already have products able to take big chunks of audio and video with you. The question is how much physically smaller the drive can go.

"The automotive industry is really interesting too - the two places where hard drives can make the most impact are GPS [satellite navigation] and entertainment. Their R&D labs are overhauling car electronics systems to support more devices, with whole new electrical architectures.

"What we've discovered though is that the design cycles are LONG. It's six months in PCs and two to four months in consumer electronics, but in automotive, product qualification is three years from production. We need new inventory and pricing strategies so we can support products that much longer."

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