Fujitsu to squeeze more on hard drives

The hard-drive maker will announce Tuesday that it has broken the 100-gigabit storage-density barrier.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read
When it comes to capacity, hard-drive manufacturers can hardly contain themselves.

Several of the leading hard-drive manufacturers have been professing that they have been innovating technologies that will allow them to store more than 100 gigabits per square inch on a platter, seen as the current ceiling for storage density. A platter is one of the key components in a hard drive and is where data is stored.

Fujitsu will be the latest to join them. On Tuesday, the hard-drive maker will announce that it has broken the 100-gigabit ceiling and plans to begin using parts of the technology that allowed it to break the barrier as early as November.

Hard-drive capacities have doubled over each of the past five years, making them one of the most inexpensive forms of storage and allowing PC owners to hoard more and more data. Industry skeptics have said that it was just a matter of time before manufacturers hit the wall when it came to increasing capacity and said that makers were about to hit the physical limit for higher capacities.

IDC analyst David Reinsel said density announcements from hard-drive makers are an effort to reassure consumers they aren't anywhere near the barrier.

"Hard-drive manufacturers want to show that hard drives have life at least to 100 gigabits and even up to 300 gigabits," IDC analyst David Reinsel said. "This should help them to keep disk drives the preferred form of data storage."

Reinsel added that storage media such as solid-state flash memory, optical storage and--to a lesser degree--holographic storage are gaining ground on hard drives. However, "There won't be a significant shift (in the storage market) until one of the emerging types can prove that they are as cheap and reliable as hard drives," Reinsel said.

In May, IBM made a similar announcement with its antiferromagnetically coupled (AFC) media, which allows hard drives to reach densities of 100 gigabits per square inch.

AFC media, informally referred to as "pixie dust" at IBM, adds a thin layer of the element ruthenium on the platters inside hard drives. Mike Chenery, a Fujitsu vice president, said the Fujitsu innovation also used ruthenium but said Fujitsu's head technology differed from IBM's.

"Fujitsu and IBM invented the technology independently of one another," Chenery said.

Fujitsu plans on using platters with ruthenium in products as early as November. And while the company has demonstrated densities in the 100-gigabit range, they won't use portions of their innovations, specifically new head technology, until early 2003.

"It takes 18 months to two years for the technology to mature and to go from lab demo to product. Additionally, we don't think the industry will really need the kinds of capacities that these innovations enable until then," Chenery said.

Current notebook hard drives use two platters and have capacities of 40GB--20GB per platter--and a density of 40 gigabits per square inch. By next year at this time, Chenery said Fujitsu would have hard drives with 80GB capacities, 40GB per platter and a density of 80 gigabits per square inch. By early 2003, Fujitsu will have hard drives with 100GB capacities, 50GB per platter and a density of 100 gigabits per square inch.

Chenery added that the ability to reach higher densities on hard-drive platters will allow manufacturers to reduce the number of platters and read/write heads in a drive without having to sacrifice capacity.

"The direction of the future is single-platter hard drives, and these new technologies enable those sorts of products," Chenery said.

Reinsel agreed. "The emphasis is on fewer platters and growing capacities of single-platter hard drives," he said. "This leads to lower costs," because it means that manufacturers can use fewer parts without having to drastically lower storage capacities.

This should play into Fujitsu's plans, as the company recently decided to drop its desktop hard-drive business and instead focus on its notebooks and business systems.

"The issue of size and cost are universal in the mobile and enterprise markets, and creating high-density solutions certainly helps to address those markets," Reinsel said.