Hard Drive Technology: the Future

While hard drives have been declared obsolete by some, don’t write them off just yet – new technologies are breathing new life into them. 

New technologies have breathed new life into a decades-old technology, meaning the decline of the hard disk drive is perhaps somewhat exaggerated. Hard drives are mechanical devices, storing data on magnetic platters; more magnetic platters mean more data can be stored. But new developments such as energy-assisted magnetic recording (EAMR) allow vendors to increase storage capacity without the need for additional disks inside the drive.

With the amount of data the world produces on a daily basis, high-capacity data storage is more important than ever, particularly in the midst of the “new normal” of home working and file sharing via the cloud. According to a report by the IDC, most of the data generated gets stored on HDDs. While the huge strides in flash storage have made high-capacity, high-performance SSDs possible, right now, they can’t beat the HDD in terms of areal density. Areal density describes an HDD’s capacity, typically measured in gigabits of data stored per square inch.

In 2005, perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR), aligns bits vertically rather than horizontally, increasing areal density and paving the wat for EAMR drives. With shingled magnetic recording, which became commercially available in 2013, tracks of data partially overlap, which enables more data to be written onto each disk. Before SMR stored tracks of data in a manner similar to tiles on a roof, they were stored as close as possible to each other, but not touching, limiting drive capacity. Heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) works by temporarily heating the disk during writing, allowing more data to be written to smaller areas of the disk. HAMR technology has allowed vendors to dramatically increase storage capacities of HDDS; Seagate began shipping 20TB HAMR drives in January 2021. While HAMR allows increased areal density, it also brings engineering and manufacturing issues; the drives require special components that require changes to the fabrication infrastructures.

The next technology predicted to shake up the world of hard drives is microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR). Unlike HAMR, MAMR drives require no lasers or external heating, increasing reliability. Additionally, MAMR drives can be manufactured using platters similar to those found in PMR drives, lowering production costs. A spin torque oscillator (STO) on the drive’s actuator arm allows data to be written at a lower magnetic field, increasing areal density without sacrificing reliability.

It’s unclear which technology – HAMR or MAMR – will become the standard for HDDs going forward, but drives with increased areal density guarantee and storage capacity mean they are still a viable storage solution.

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