On Christmas morning, or soon thereafter, your laptop will go silent. So will your family’s video camera. The quiet will spread worldwide. In Delhi, the huge data centers that store your customers’ information will fall into an electronic hush. Even your TiVo will go mute. There will be no more flywheels. No more fans. No more hard-drive platters spinning for data, gorging on electricity, and clattering to an apocalyptic stop whenever the power goes out. Because moving parts are dead. The new state of our union will be: solid.
Before we bid the conventional hard-disk drive (HDD) adieu, however, let us hail the white-jacketed folks at IBM who invented it in 1956. They were not engineers. They were magicians. They figured out a way to translate analog information (a song, say, or a photograph) into digits — specifically, a long series of zeroes and ones — and then to magnetically “stick” millions of those digits to a circular platter for storage, recoverable for future use. The result, the HDD, looks exactly like a tiny record player: There’s a spinning disk and an arm that hovers over it. To save a document, the disk spins and the arm looks for empty space on the surface, where it magnetically “writes” zeroes and ones; to recover information, the process works in reverse. In either direction, it takes time, and lots of electricity.
Now, imagine reducing that time and energy to almost zero. It’s possible with a solid-state drive, or SSD. The digits on an SSD are not physical, per se; instead, they are electrical charges (either positive or negative), stored by microscopic transistors. The computer sees those transistors as either “on” or “off” and interprets that “state” as either a zero or a one. In other words, with SSDs, there is no need for the computer to do a physical search for data on a spinning hard drive. There is just an electronic summoning of digits. Meaning SSDs can do in 200 millionths of a second what an HDD needs 8 thousandths of a second, and 10 times more power, to do.
This new explosion in solid-state memory represents not only a revolution in the power and speed of a whole range of consumer electronics but also a huge growth market in an otherwise grim economy. That’s true of SSDs, the commercial-grade version of solid-state memory designed to store and retrieve massive amounts of data, as well as removable SD (secure digital) cards and their cousins, onboard flash-memory chips (the solid-state memory inside iPod Nanos and Shuffles). “When we first started covering the NAND [semiconductor-based flash memory] space in 1999,” says Mario Morales, vice president of semiconductor research at Framingham, Massachusetts — based IDC, “it was a $200 million market. By 2012, just the semiconductor part of the market alone [not including the devices they control] will be $24 billion.”
There is a good reason for the sudden, seismic move to solid state: Breakthroughs in microprocessor design are coinciding with a glut in silicon semiconductor production. Flash-memory fabrication plants built by giants like Samsung and Toshiba, for example, have all come on line recently. You can find a removable, 1-gigabyte SD memory card on Amazon.com for $2.49. Three years ago, it cost about $95.
Memory capacity, meanwhile, is going in the opposite direction: straight up. San Jose — based SanDisk, one of the world’s leading designers of flash-memory cards, just introduced a removable micro memory card for cell phones that can hold 16,000 jpeg images, or a few hours of DVD-quality video. All this on a chip the size of a toddler’s thumbnail. This huge rise in storage capacity and speed frees up the big electronics manufacturers to produce thinner, sleeker gear across all categories.
For proof of the oncoming silicon tsunami, go to the videotape. Or not. “Nobody is buying tape,” says Ben Thomas, a marketing supervisor at Canon U.S.A., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of camcorders. “We’re not going to make it anymore. The format is going away completely.” Indeed, in the last two years, Canon’s tape-based MiniDV video camera, once its No. 1 format, has fallen from 64% of sales to 14%, while solid-state or flash-memory camcorders have shot from 1% to 10% in the past nine months alone. The company projects a nearly complete changeover to solid state within the next two years.
The same tectonic shift is jolting the enterprise hardware giants. IBM recently announced the first hint of its own invention’s demise when it unveiled an SSD-based storage-and-data management system called Quicksilver. Thanks partly to the Intel SSD processors inside it, Quicksilver is 20 times faster than the world’s fastest HDD-based server, uses only 20% of the floor space of the old technology, and requires just 55% of the power and cooling. “I’ve been in the business for 24 years,” says Mike Desens, vice president of data-center development for IBM, “and I don’t want to make it seem too grand, but I really feel solid state is going to be a major destructive force on the conventional hard-drive industry.” Of course, HDDs won’t disappear overnight — there are still hundreds of millions of them spinning out there. But according to Gartner Research, SSD sales are projected to rise at an eye-opening 136% compounded annual growth rate through 2012 (versus 8.2% for HDD). Big HDD companies like Fujitsu and Hitachi are on notice.
The new energy-sipping SSD technology has “green” benefits, of course, which are catnip for marketers. But there is a more basic and immediate advantage to an SSD-driven machine: Many large companies can no longer expand their data centers because they literally can’t get any more electricity. “A CIO’s worst nightmare,” Desens says, “is having to go tell the CEO of his company that he can’t put in any more data-storage capacity because he’s out of power. It’s happening everywhere. Airline reservation systems, online retailers, you name it.”
Larry Kasanoff, the executive producer of the film True Lies and now the CEO of the animation studio Threshold Entertainment, had that very nightmare last summer. Kasanoff estimates that each frame in his upcoming movie, Foodfight!, uses 15 megabytes of hard-drive space; that’s 7.5 terabytes (or roughly 7,900,000 megabytes) of storage to hold the finished project. But producing an animated movie isn’t just about storing thousands of pictures, it’s about manipulating them, ideally in real time, which means he also needed many more, or much faster, processors to edit it. “You can see [the effect of slow processors] in crowd scenes,” he says, “it just isn’t smooth or natural — it looks like a hundred guys who just took strychnine.”
Kasanoff had no choice but to switch over to a faster, more efficient system: “We already take the maximum power that’s possible off the grid here in Santa Monica,” he said. “We couldn’t get any more from the city. We either had to expand by increasing server efficiency, or move the company.” Now consumers will be able to upgrade their own laptops in the same way: Many SSD manufacturers are selling 2.5-inch drives that can be simply swapped for their old spinning model.
One of solid-state memory’s biggest advantages is its nearly magical ability to hold digital information in extreme conditions, even when the memory chip is frozen, cooked, dropped, stepped on, and/or suddenly yanked from its power source. American SSD manufacturer Super Talent Technology, which has annual sales of about $200 million, claims its SSD drives can withstand 1,500 g-forces, operate in a temperature range between 32 degrees and 172 degrees, run for more than a million hours, and go without power for up to 10 years without losing memory.
This sort of extreme performance, set against the plunging, inverse relationship between power and size, has recently created a design Big Bang. Engineers are running wild. That’s progress.
But if there’s a lament for the passing of moving parts, it’s that they are like us. They spin, they hum, they flutter, and then they break. They hint at the fate we all share — someday that timing belt will snap, throwing your engine into a confused and fatal arrhythmia. A mechanic will look under the hood. The bad news: Your engine will be dead. The good news: He’ll know why. Going solid state means trading in that understanding for the chance to live forever. Apparently, that’s a trade most of us are happy to make.
Paul Hochman is the gear and tech editor for Today on NBC and host of MSN.com’s GearDaddy.