Monday, June 11, 2012

The Hard Drive is dead (and you shouldn't care)

I love good historical stories, especially because history seems to repeat itself.  My father told me about a conversation he had as a young man with someone who had lived in Germany during and after World War I.  The man told my father that after the war, Germany found itself in real financial trouble.  As part of the final end of the war, Germany was forced through the Treaty of Versailles to pay war reparations to the Allies - Britain, France, Belgium, etc.  The amount due was so monumental that there was literally no way for Germany to pay the bill.  So like many other countries of the past and future, it did the only thing it could - Germany printed up billions and billions of Deutschmarks and sent them off by the truckload to the Allies. (Before the war every Deutschmark was backed physically by silver, which gave it a high, fixed value).

While technically paying the reparations, Germany so completely devalued its currency as to make it worthless.  The man told my father that one day his mother gathered up $15 billion Deutschmarks in a white wicker basket and went off to market to buy one loaf of bread.  At the bakery she sat the basket full of marks down to tie her shoe.  When she looked up, a thief had just finished dumping the paper currency and was running off with the basket!  The one little basket at that point was actually worth more than $15 billion Deutschmarks!  Of course today the German mark is the real backbone of the Euro but that's now, not 90 years ago.

So how does this story tie in with hard drives?  Over the past 15 years something has been quietly but inexorably happening in the field of data storage.  Here is a quick set of facts; see if you can see the trend:
  • 1993 - a 30 megabyte hard drive cost $400
  • 1998 - a  150 megabyte hard drive cost $280
  • 2002 - a 400 megabyte hard drive cost $210
  • 2008 - a 1 terabyte hard drive cost $180
  • 2012 - a 2 terabyte hard drive costs $119.99 (check out www.newegg.com)
The trend is easy to spot.  The technology has matured to the point where the supply of "bytes" versus the demand has driven prices down to "dirt cheap" levels.  Just because you can buy a 2TB hard drive doesn't mean that you actually need one.  If it wasn't for all of my photos, which I back up to Carbonite anyway, I wouldn't need much more than 200GB.  Your usage may be different depending upon the size of your iTunes catalog.

But let's look beyond supply and demand for a second.  Most of the new technology that interests us: smart phones, tablets, "thumb" drives, SAP HANA, cloud applications, etc. do not use hard drives.  (Well, maybe the cloud does but you never see it).  These technologies use storage that is mostly memory based, whether it be flash devices or advanced RAM (computer memory).  The newest tablets and ultrathin laptops use only flash memory - otherwise they would be bulkier and use more power.  Yet, compared to the speed of a hard drive these flash memory devices seem to work infinitely faster.

There has been a stopgap technology in play for about two years called the solid state drive or "SSD".  These devices are shaped like hard drives but have no moving parts or spinning platters.  They were a fad for a little while but are not catching on because of their expense and the general trend towards flash devices

No, dear readers, the era of the hard drive is over and done.  I give it about five more years before the hard drive as we know it, with moving parts and platters, goes the way of both the dodo bird and the 8-track tape.  We are moving to a new architecture for technology that will be unlike anything we could have predicted in the 1990s.  There will be no place for moving parts that can break or devices that won't fit in our pockets.

To borrow shamelessly from REM: It's the end of (IT) as we know it, and I feel fine!

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