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IBM "pixie dust" breaks hard drive barrier

A new innovation in hard drive technology promises to continue the 100 percent growth rate of hard drive capacities from each of the past five years.

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  IBM sprinkles "pixie dust" onto storage
Currie Munce, research director, IBM
IBM has announced a new innovation in hard drive technology that shatters what many in the industry saw as an unbreakable barrier.

In each of the past five years, hard drive capacities have doubled, keeping storage costs low and allowing technophiles and PC users to sock away more data. However, storage buffs believed the rate of growth could continue for only so long, and many asserted that the storage industry was about to hit the physical limit for higher capacities. But according to IBM, a new innovation will push back that limit.

Technically called antiferromagnetically coupled (AFC) media and informally referred to as "pixie dust" at IBM, the innovation introduces a thin layer of the element ruthenium onto the disks inside hard drives where data is stored. AFC allows more data to be packed onto a disk.

Jim Porter, president of data storage research company Disk/Trend, said prices of hard drives are unlikely to increase dramatically because AFC increases the density and storage capacity without the addition of expensive disks, where data is stored, or of heads, which read data off the disks.

Before AFC, hard drives could store about 20 gigabits of data per square inch. IBM unveiled new Travelstar drives this spring that use AFC. The drives, which began shipping in volume three weeks ago, can store 25.7 gigabits of data per square inch. An IBM representative said the company chose not to publicize AFC until now for competitive reasons.

With further refinements to the process of adding the AFC innovation to hard drive production, IBM Research Director Currie Munce expects data densities of 100 gigabits per square inch by 2003. Munce added that AFC will be used across all IBM hard drive product lines.

IBM Travelstar drives scheduled for shipment later this year are expected to come with an increased density of another 33 percent.

"We've found a way to add AFC to our current hard drive production methods, so we'll be able to double capacity with little or no cost, essentially maintaining or even dropping the price per gigabit," Munce said.

AFC will also allow smaller drives to store more data and use less power, which could lead to smaller and quieter devices, Munce said.

Drives with densities of 100 gigabits per square inch will enable desktop drives to reach 400GB storage levels, notebooks 200GB, and one-inch Microdrives 6GB.

Storage researchers have worked on AFC for years, Porter said. "But IBM is the first to turn theory into practice."

Porter pointed out that because AFC is used in current production methods, he expects IBM competitors in the hard drive industry, such as Seagate Technology and Fujitsu, to follow soon.