The Future of the Hard Drive

On (roughly) the 50th anniversary of the invention of the hard drive, Tom's Hardware interviews Seagate's Senior Field Applications Engineer Henrique Atzkern (Quo Vadis, Hard Drive? The 50th Anniversary of the HDD). In it, we catch a glimpse of some of the ideas being explored for increasing hard drive density, speed, and reliability, among other things. Parsing through the acronym alphabet soup and surface technicality, one thing remains clear: hard drive manufacturers are not running out of ideas for increasing storage capacity, so we can expect to continue seeing dramatic leaps in storage capacities.

Let's look at this in terms of what we are storing. Most people around my age can remember how any increase in storage capacity seemed to be followed immediately by increases in program size -- developers used the extra space to put more functionality and features into their programs. The storage capacity gap has long since dwarfed the needs of applications and operating systems, but users have since taken the lead. First, users struggled with storing images and audio while developers introduced new compression schemes to accommodate them. Later, video reached the masses and started filling hard drives, even in greatly compressed states.

But the gap keeps expanding as hard drives increase in size. Text documents are not getting any bigger, even though the applications that create them keep bloating. Moving from binary to XML representations has not significantly increased word processing file sizes. Same goes for images and audio -- the bits needed to losslessly represent a 1200 dpi scan have not increased, and the same goes for a 48 kHz digital audio file. In fact, the bits needed to losslessly represent audio have actually decreased with file formats such as FLAC. On the other hand, video storage requirements are still expanding. DV quality is now giving way to HD and I would expect a few more developments before we reach a state where more bits does not yield better quality (for most typical applications).

The only thing left to close the gap for these types of digital media is to have a lot of them. Even then, I expect that the total unused storage, taken across all systems, will increase as dramatically as the storage devices themselves. This can only mean good things for those who want to "save it all."