Industry trends dictate a new equation for specifying desktop hard drive storage

Quantum Whitepaper

"You can never have too much (disk storage)."  Forbes, March 24, 1997

"Get the largest hard disk you can afford"  PC World, January 1997

"You need twice the hard disk space you needed last year."  PC World, January 1997

Costs per megabyte of storage continue to plummet, making high capacity hard drives more affordable than ever. As a result, new model PCs with drives in the 3 and even 4 gigabyte (GB) range are now commonplace. Yet even as PC buyers rush to take advantage of this opportunity, the experts still caution against storage complacency. Why? When is "enough" truly enough?

Like CPU performance, average hard drive capacities have tended to double every 18 months, meaning that high capacity drives are now roughly 10 times larger than they were five years ago. Thus, today's 2.1 gigabyte (GB) drive equates to 1992's highly respectable 240 megabyte (MB) drive. Given today's market and technology forces, there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue, and perhaps accelerate, leading to the widespread use of 10 and even 12 GB drives in high-end PCs by the year 2000.

Is this being alarmist? No, just realistic. For example, in its January 1997 issue, PC World observed that drive usage requirements doubled over the course of 1996. There are a lot of reasons for this, including more powerful and ever larger software programs, and increased downloading from the Internet. But this is really only the tip of the iceberg. As multimedia standards, including MPEG-2, fall into place, storage requirements are set to explode even further.

At the same time, PC life cycles are becoming extended. International Data Corporation (IDC) has predicted that "useful PC lifecycles" will elongate to "3 to 5 years plus," as opposed to the current two- to three-year lifecycle. This of course dictates outfitting PCs with even more storage to quell fears of early obsolescence and to avoid inflicting users with costly hard drive upgrades (the digital equivalent of root canal work).

Taken together, accelerating storage requirements and prolonged equipment lifecycles are pressuring vendors to take a hard look at storage configurations in order to differentiate their PCs, achieve higher margins and insure customer loyalty. To put the new storage paradigm into perspective, it's important to understand where the new tidal waves of data are coming from. It's also critical to grasp the new math involved in specifying storage. And, finally, it's useful to understand which storage technologies can best keep PC vendors and users collective heads above the coming flood.

The consumer market: New technologies push the need for capacity

"I thought 1.2 would be enough, but there is so much out there, I need a 6 gig." End user responding to a 1996 Quantum survey

As hard drive capacities continue to expand, many people find it difficult to understand how consumers will fill all the new space. Several broad market trends combine to provide some answers.

To begin with, it's no secret that software developers are coding larger and more powerful applications. This has been the rule for some time, and is not likely to change. Computer games, meanwhile, are becoming more data intensive thanks to full-motion video, 3D effects and Dolby AC-3 sound. As this happens, developers are relying more and more on hard disk caching to increase game performance.

Then there's the Internet. Consumers are literally swarming to shareware sites for free applications, downloading large files and allowing sites to constantly "push" streams of data and software onto their PCs. In fact, three of the five most popular Internet locations are shareware sites.

In the multimedia arena, millions of desktop PCs are expected to be equipped with MMX technology over the next four years, enabling them to run multimedia applications without add-in boards or chips. As multimedia files are many times larger than traditional text files, the storage requirements for MMX-enabled PCs will be immense. By 1999, Quantum expects the typical user will be allocating about 2 GB for storing graphics, photos and other multimedia information.

Full-motion video = full drives

Finally, industry observers see skyrocketing popularity for digital video clips and movies over the next two or three years, enabled by new MPEG-2 (Motion Picture Experts Group)

compression standards. Dataquest, for example, forecasts that MPEG chipset shipments will quadruple to more than 48 million during the year 2000, amounting to almost 100 percent penetration of the desktop market.

While DVD-ROM discs will carry MPEG content, roughly twice as many PCs will have MPEG chips than will have DVD-ROM drives. As a result, users will turn to the Internet, using faster and faster modems, to download MPEG movie clips, videos and news stories. And for the sake of performance, they will place the content directly on their hard drives at a capacity gobbling pace of up to 35 MB per minute! When you consider that a two-minute movie trailer requires 70 MB of storage, a five minute music video requires 175 MB and a feature movie requires 5 GB, it's easy to see why consumers will continue to clamor for more capacious drives to even temporarily store information.


Figure 1: Multimedia Home PCs Require

Bigger Drives 

The business market: applications and storage needs proliferate

Business users typically run a wider range of programs than home users, adding such specialized business/professional programs as desktop publishing, CAD/CAM, design programs, mapping, digital asset management, assorted video applications and music editing to more general-purpose word processing, spreadsheet applications and databases. Like consumer programs, these professional applications are also expanding in size, and in the sheer volume of data they have to manage.

While network PCs for the workplace have garnered attention, widespread popularity may not necessarily follow. For one thing, personal and group applications thrive on having information at users' fingertips, and most users are not interested in relinquishing the hard-earned freedom (and resultant productivity) they've gained from improved operating systems and applications in recent years.

At the same time, IS departments are not anxious to increase network usage - rather they are interested in preserving network bandwidth for mission-critical applications such as accounting and manufacturing systems and for the corporate intranet and e-mail systems.

Given the affordability of high capacity drives, it is now very cost effective for IS to continue to allow users to manage their individual productivity applications and data with local storage. By the same token, it is also cost effective to purchase PCs with the largest possible drives in order to reduce the number of storage upgrades that need to be performed.  Investing in future capacity now minimizes long-term costs.

None of this has been lost on the major manufacturers of PCs for business and small office/home (SOHO) office use. Leading Quantum OEMs, for example, have been aggressive in including 6 GB and 8.4 GB capacities in their product plans for the second half of 1997.

Staying ahead of the curve

In 1993, the average hard drive had a capacity of 200 MB. Most people who purchased a new PC that year probably thought that was fairly large. A year and a half later, most of those drives were 80 percent full (at least 20 percent of the drive needs to be reserved for the file system) and in need of replacement. By 1996, the average drive was 1.2 GB. Most of these were 25 percent full when purchased due to preloaded software. It is likely that most of these drives will be 80 percent full within 18 months of purchase due to new software installation, software upgrades, internet downloads, and data creation. That part of the math hasn't changed.

What has also remained constant is the pain and hassle of a drive upgrade.  The labor costs of an upgrade are significantly higher than the cost of a new drive. Then you have to add in the costs of downtime, the stress of the upgrade and the fear of losing your data. Vendors wanting to avoid imposing this painful process on their customers need to find a new storage capacity equation. A new PC with a drive that is already 25 percent full - particularly in the face of today's data explosion and the growing user desire to hold onto PCs a bit longer - is a solution that will neither minimize total cost of ownership nor maximize customer satisfaction.

Changing the equation to think bigger

Today it is economically and competitively imperative to specify a hard drive that is 10 percent full at the very start. This allows the drive to be useful for at least three years, rather than being ripe for replacement after only 18 months. This is in line with the elongating lifecycle trend (3+ years) recently predicted by IDC. In current terms, this translates to specifying a 6.4 GB drive versus a 2.5 GB drive. Same footprint, not much more incremental cost, but great cost-of-ownership advantages that can be translated into higher vendor margins and increased customer satisfaction.


Figure 2: Bigger Drives Lower The

Total Cost of Ownership

Running up the numbers

This view can easily be justified by a look at historical numbers.  Essentially, the growth in hard drive storage capacity has mirrored the trend for increased computing power brought about by Intel and Microsoft (figure 4).


Figure 3: Drive Capacity Mirrors

PC Technology Growth

We see the curve getting steeper and steeper over time. But if we look at the growth rate logarithmically (figure 5), we can see that it has actually been fairly linear for the last seven years. Projecting that trend line out, we come to an average hard drive size of 10 GB for new PCs by the year 2000, with 8 and even 12 GB drives becoming popular by 1998.


Figure 4: The Average Drive Will

Be 10 GB by the Year 2000

Clearly, vendors that track to this line, and users that embrace it, stand a much better chance of staying ahead of the capacity curve than those ignoring the trend.

Meeting the mounting demand

Happily, hard drives are well positioned to handle mounting capacity requirements. As we've discussed, average hard drive capacity has been doubling every 18 months throughout this decade. Meanwhile the cost per megabyte of storage has dramatically improved each year. These trends are expected to persist as areal densities (bits per square inch on the disk's surface) continue to improve, and read channel technologies continue to advance. At the current rate, 12 GB drives will be a reality by early 1998.

What are some of the technologies that are making this possible? The key technologies include magnetoresistive (MR) heads, Partial Response Maximum Likelihood (PRML) read channels and new design techniques that allow heads to fly closer to the disk surface. Of these, MR heads are the most significant.

Quantum was the first major desktop hard drive manufacturer to switch to MR heads to help increase areal densities. Essentially, as densities increase, the bit patterns on the disk grow smaller, and the signal generated by the head subsequently weakens. This, in turn, makes it difficult for the read channel electronics to identify the bit patterns. MR heads produce a significantly stronger read signal than traditional head technologies, thus further opening the door for increased areal densities. To-date, Quantum has shipped more than five times as many desktop drives with MR heads than any other HDD vendor.

Quantum was also first independent disk drive company to announce and ship desktop drives with PRML read channels - to allow closer packing of data transitions on a disk and provide approximately 40 percent more capacity for actual user data, compared to traditional peak-detection encoding schemes. Today, most Quantum drives use PRML read channels, while PRML is used only in approximately 30 percent of the drives shipped by the storage industry as a whole. Quantum is now moving towards implementing even more efficient Extended PRML (EPRML) read channel technology. EPRML, which performs additional digital filtering, can provide an additional 10 percent boost in areal density.

In addition to shipping more desktop drives with MR heads than any other drive maker, Quantum was also the first independent supplier to combine MR head and PRML technologies in a hard drive. While MR heads alone enable dramatically higher areal densities than older technologies, the combination of MR and PRML read channels allows even higher densities.

The net result of Quantum's leadership and innovations in these areas has been twofold: 

A leadership position in high-capacity hard drives for the desktop

A leadership position in time-to-market with new technologies and advantages


Larger programs, the Internet, multimedia applications and full-motion video are all pushing consumers towards the largest possible hard drives.  Businesses, meanwhile, are looking to larger capacity drives to further enhance user performance. At the same time, both home PC and business PC buyers now expect their computers to last at least three years, and are anxious to avoid the pain and hassle of a hard drive upgrade during their PC's full lifecycle.

Fortunately, if they make the right moves, PC vendors can stay ahead of the rapidly mounting capacity curve. Technology enhancements have made high-capacity hard drives both feasible and affordable. And, as Quantum's focus has always been to "think bigger," the company's leadership in key capacity-enabling technologies will help its customers be the first to market with the 8, 10, 12 and higher GB drives that the market will require over the next few years.

There's no excuse for being taken by surprise when it comes to storage capacity. The road markers are clear. The only answer is to Think Bigger. Bigger capacities mean bigger possibilities and, ultimately, more satisfied customers and end-users.

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