Late last year, Seagate announced that it would bring 16TB HDDs to market in 2019, assisted by its development of new technology to boost drive areal density. Now, Western Digital has declared that it’s also sampling its new 16TB drives, only they don’t use the HAMR technology Seagate has developed. Instead, WD is relying on a different approach, dubbed MAMR (Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording).
With HAMR (Head Assisted Magnetic Recording), the drive media is heated before writing. This heating makes it easier to write to the media, but also requires some material changes. The media has to be capable of heating and cooling very quickly and must withstand this cycle thousands of times. MAMR doesn’t require the same thermal transitions or material changes — it embeds a spin torque oscillator in the drive head. This lowers the surface resistance of the magnetic material and allows the drive to be written to more easily. Both technologies were developed to allow HDD areal density to continue to scale. Drive density has been improving much more slowly than it once did, allowing SSDs to close the gap with HDDs in terms of capacities more quickly than they might otherwise. Hard drives still have an absolute advantage as far as affordability per GB, but the gap has been shrinking for years.
The first 16TB drives will use eight platters, with 18TB drives also forecast to arrive this year. Like Seagate, Western Digital intends to adopt multi-actuator technology as well. Using multiple actuators will improve latencies and overall performance, bringing HDDs more into line with SSDs, at least in certain use cases. Hard drive seek times, for example, are intrinsically incapable of matching an SSD — there’s no substitute for solid-state storage seek timing when compared with physically needing to reposition a drive head and spinning magnetic discs.
But while Western Digital is reportedly confident enough in MAMR to forecast availability in 2019, it isn’t clear what kind of long-term plans are being made around the technology. On the one hand, WD is forecasting a years-long roadmap for its newest drive technology and capacities of 20TB+ drives by 2020. On the other, it’s also publicly saying that it continues to invest in some HAMR research. This is a touch unusual, because Western Digital’s entire public messaging has revolved around the idea that Seagate’s HAMR approach is too expensive and unwieldy to be effectively adopted. Either Western Digital’s MAMR approach isn’t as baked as the company wants to imply or it may have a tougher roadmap to reaching new density improvements. Even if WD has MAMR working at current drive capacity targets, it could be concerned about the long-term scaling of the technology. Anandtech notes that Seagate has claimed HAMR offers superior long-term density scaling, which could imply a lower ceiling for MAMR drives.
Then again, it’s not clear how aggressively either Seagate or WD will actually be when it comes to rolling out new tech, or if these drive technologies will come to the consumer space at all. At least initially, we’re likely to see them reserved for data center deployments, surveillance systems, and cloud enterprises.
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