The Hard Disk Is Dead: Long Live Solid State

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Sometimes, it takes an established industry giant to bring out the best in a brilliant new technology.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) wasn't kidding this summer when it promised to put a new face on solid-state drives. The chip giant's first serious foray into the $35 billion storage drive market hits the street this week, and the early buzz is phenomenal.

AnandTech Chief Executive Anand Lal Shimpi writes that the new Intel X25-M is the first product that has ever made him want to "actually go out, buy and stick in my desktop machine" right away. The Tech Report concedes that the drives are very expensive at about $600 per 80 gigabytes of storage space, but it's still "an absolute bargain" if you measure value in price per high-speed data transfer. These are the tech enthusiasts who set the tone for the rest of the market, and both have been kicking the tires of new processors, hard drives, and the like for a decade or more.

Consider the mobile computing market first. With performance that varies from respectable to mind-blowing, low power drain, and no moving parts, this is the perfect storage solution for laptops and other portable gadgets. Spinning magnetic disks in small packages are slow, eat batteries for breakfast, and tend to break if you drop 'em. That's why Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) builds flash-based iPods and iPhones, though they don't need Intel's level of performance quite yet.

Then, look at the enterprise market. STEC (Nasdaq: STEC  ) and SMART Modular Technologies (Nasdaq: SMOD  ) make business-class flash drives to power massive data banks like video-on-demand libraries. Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) builds entire media servers around the extreme performance and reliability of solid-state storage. IT managers love to keep their data centers cool and quiet, so memory chips are desirable from that angle, too.

The X25 delivers scary performance under some circumstances such as reading massive data sets (hello, corporate America!) or working with several applications at once (a.k.a. a normal day at my desk). Through smart design and quality components, Intel has overcome some glaring problems with drives built around lower-cost multi-level flash memory cells. It's still not cheap enough to blow traditional disk makers like Western Digital (NYSE: WDC  ) and Seagate Technology (NYSE: STX  ) to pieces yet, but it's just a question of time.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2008, at 5:17 PM, scorp1us wrote:

    Solid state changes everything. For years now, we've had to treat disks as sequential access devices because they read best when all the data is lined up. This has programming implications with respect to data management. All the databases out there maximize sequential reads. With SSD, you can seek and read any item of information just as fast regardless of where it is on the disk. Once these get big enough to get into database servers, expect databases and other applications to have special SSD modes. Right now, their best use on databases isn't for storage - it is for the partition where indexes are stored.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2008, at 6:25 PM, knighttof3 wrote:

    Don't Flash devices wear out faster (much faster) than hard disks?

    To be fair, the HDD manufacturers have been lowering their quality standards to the point that the average MTBF of an HDD has come down from 5 years to 1 year. But I thin they're still more reliable than Flash unless INTC has somehow improved Flash.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2008, at 7:08 PM, willypt wrote:

    One thing is for sure, this was written by an ignorant fool. Just for one glaring error a SSD drive 80G takes more than half the power of a 100G HDD now funny thing happens when you double the size of a SSD it doubles it's power usage. Double the size of a HDD same power usage. I can get a 500G laptop HDD that will use way less power than a comparable SSD, Oh wait who could afford a SSD that size? Maybe you should test one of these things before you trumpet so loud. Oh I forgot no one has made a dime of profit on SSD's despite the prices. SS works good in small devices but there will have to be some serious breakthroughs in tech before they are any more than a geek toy in consumer, in enterprise a fast one as a buffer and short term storage storage does make sense but only one per server because of cost. There are other blatant errors in this article but I don't have the time!

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2008, at 7:51 PM, mpiet wrote:

    When I can purchase a 500GB SSD that is as low power as a 500GB HDD for my laptop for $150 and I don't have to worry about the thing wearing out due to limited writes to flash cells - THEN, I'll be excited about SSD. And of course both WD and Seagate will be selling those by then.

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2008, at 12:41 AM, rony111 wrote:

    What a real and total fool. You wrote:

    "It's still not cheap enough to blow traditional disk makers like Western Digital (NYSE: WDC) and Seagate Technology (NYSE: STX) to pieces yet, but it's just a question of time."

    Can you tell the readers how much time? You are obviously ignorant or a complete idiot. What makes you think that the hard drive industury won't evolve with this time you are talking about? The hard drives today are not the same of yesteryears and will continue to evolve with the time.

    Keep publishing more idiotic articles like this and with time you will perish.

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2008, at 5:16 AM, soiseesurfer wrote:

    I am not going to be quite is villifying in my remarks other then to point out that if you want to be of mutual service here at the Fool you shoulsd exercise some diligence in checking your facts. To start I am curious why you chose to headline your remarks they way you did and then go on to say that "it's still not cheap enough to yadda yadda. Are you a newspaper reporter attempting to sell a headline? Thanks but no thanks. Plenty of that outside this domain. I think you are finding a tough readership here, at least partially for that unfortunate bit of sensationalism and for the utterly absurd conclusions you have drawn. It seems likely to me that you have posted a rehash of an article you have read. Trust me when I say that many of the articles about NAND, and SSDs you may have read out there are designed to attract attention and are not thorough analysis that would survive here and command attentiveness as opposed to attention. There are so many points I could write to refute your blurb but I am also unwilling to devote the time. Let me just offer this link to an article that gets it right:

    There are several more articles similar and there are several reasons SSDs will strugle for parity with HDDs for a long time to come. Do some homework and please, save the BS headlines for which is where your post above belongs if anywhere.

  • Report this Comment On October 08, 2008, at 11:53 AM, jjkacz wrote:

    Here's something that is not being considered: personal backup and storage.

    The WDC passport drive is truly a remarkable device in terms of its capacity, mobility and affordability. A drive slightly larger in size than a classic ipod, it can carry up to 320 gigs (perhaps more) in personal data for well under $200. They are light weight and gone are the days of the bulky adapter as well. It connects and powers through usb.

    I own several, and have turned many others on to these drives. I keep one with me at all times and have others that live on a bookshelf, taking up less room than a paperback.

    Hard drive storage may be yesterdays news, but that is not to say that units like these have not dramatically improved over the last few years. In terms of bang for the buck, you can't beat it.

  • Report this Comment On October 15, 2008, at 12:57 PM, swatisrik wrote:

    i had a comment on the state of *something* being solid but then i read the note that asked me to be respectful :)

    HDDs aren't going anywhere anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. some posters have already covered some of them. google covers almost all of them. maybe you should read up some.

  • Report this Comment On October 21, 2008, at 12:56 AM, paanmc wrote:

    Sounds like this author had definitely been swayed by the folks pushing solid state stocks as if SDD vs HDD was a zero-sum game.

    As STX and other will tell you, let's not forget that now matter how much solid state storage you have, in your phone, music player, etc... you're need to back it up somewhere. Not mention all those Tivo-ed shows, ripped CDs, movies, photos from your 8 megapixel camera, etc.... 1Tb HDDs are now selling and people still don't think they have enough space.

    I've been adding 500Gb per year to my own storage for TV, music, movies, and still can't keep up, and that's just at home.

    At work, we all have 200Gb+ on our laptops and still run out of space, requiring external drives and lots of server space.

    Even if solid state does become more popular, HDD is not going anywhere soon. In fact, I think the more SDD you have the more HDD you'll need to back it up, so more devices out there make me hopeful my STX shares will eventually pay off!

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