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Samsung kills the hard-disk

May 26th, 2008 · No Comments

We have to confess that we’re interested in anything that has to do with the amazing advancement of information and communication technology (ICT). As such, we will, from time to time, write about what we see as significant developments.

This morning, the technology sector of the Japanese Nikkei newspaper had a rather technical article about some new solid state drive (SSD) from Samsung. It didn’t say so, but we think this drive will spell the end for traditional harddisks, first in laptops, but it will not remain limited to that. 

First, what is a solid state drive? Basically, it’s flash memory. The main advantage of flash memory is that, unlike the memory used in computers, it retains it’s information when the electricity current is switched off. However, it does not compete with computer memory because it’s much more expensive, and quite a bit slower.

So basically, you have to compare it with hard-disk memory. And it is here that the race is on. Apple was the first company that came with a flash memory based music player, and although much more expensive than those which had a little hard-disk, and more limited in capacity as well, the advantages were clear:

  1. Flash-drives do not have moving parts, therefore, they are a lot more rugged than hard-disks, which have disks spinning around at amazing speeds and arms hovering over them at even more amazingly small distances, all a bit fragile, try jogging with a hard-disk based IPod, for instance.
  2. Because they do not have moving parts, their energy consumption is also a lot less, since batteries are a main bottleneck in most gadgets and laptops, this is another great advantage
  3. Access times are also a lot faster compared to hard-disks. It’s not quite ‘instant-on’ yet, but when booting up a laptop from a flash based SSD, it will go noticeably faster compared with hard-disk based laptops

Now, SSD’s also have a few disadvantages:

  1. They are still much more expensive per gigabyte compared to hard-disks
  2. While access times are a lot faster (as hard-disks have to fetch files from different locations on the disk platters), sustained operation (media applications and the like) is still an area where hard-disks can compete with SSD’s, until this Sammy drive came up, that is.

However, these advantages of hard-disks are rapidly diminishing. The point is, it’s not hard to extrapolate, as flash memory is subject to Moore’s law, the performance can double every 18 months or so. And today came a very important break-through from Samsung, speeding things up nicely.

Samsung managed to combine a series of smaller flash cells to function as one big cell without any performance loss. This is a very important advancements, as it:

  1. Enables much larger capacity SSD’s much cheaper. While until now the SSD’s out there, like the ones in the Apple MacBook Air or the IBM X300, were like 64Gb drives costing in the order of $1000. Samsung is coming out with a 264Gb drive, and although they haven’t announced a price, it is going to be a break-through.
  2. With a sequential read speed of 200MBps and sequential write speed of 160MBps, the SSD is about 2.4 times faster than a typical hard-disk. This is amazingly fast also compared to most, if not all, other SSD’s on the market.
  3. It is so fast that it can actually encrypt all the info, so even when the disk is removed from the laptop, it’s information is still not accessible.

With Moore’s Law and the economics of mass production (which have yet to kick in) on it’s side, the only remaining disadvantage (price) will also disappear quite rapidly. Although one can already buy reasonably priced terabyte hard-disk, in a couple of years SSD’s will even wipe the floor with these, in all likelihood.

It won’t happen overnight, the price/capacity advantage for hard-disks is still there, but the race is definitely on, as it the outcome. The SSD’s will conquer all in front of them, first gadgets (that battle is already almost over), then laptops (only just beginning), PC’s, mediaboxes and servers.

Mediaboxes and servers is where hard-disks still have a large advantage (as they need very large capacity drives), but the speed, durability, and energy consumption advantages of SSD’s are already in place and the price/capacity advantage will be eroded in a couple of years.

Shorting those hard-disk producers, anyone?

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