Flash drives are the storage platform of choice for many embedded designs but hard disk drives remain the capacity leaders. Hard drives are the backbone of enterprise systems with disk farms containing petabytes or even exabytes of data. The storage hierarchy includes a mix hard drive technologies with flash rapidly filling the smaller, faster, cache level (see The Storage Hierarchy Gets More Complex).
There used to be many hard drive vendors but now the number of major players is now down to three: Seagate, Western Digital and Toshiba. This is down from five just last year. Western Digital recently picked up Hitachi GST to jump into the number one spot. Not to be out done, Seagate has picked up Samsung's hard drive business. It cost Seagate about $1.4 billion.
This consolidation has been going on for years. Seagate, that started out as Shugart Technology, had already added Maxtor to its mix and Conner Peripherals back in 1996. Maxtor had included MiniScribe and Quantum. Hitachi had incorporated IBM's hard drive business before it was merged into Western Digital.
In many ways, the solid state disk market is where the hard drive market was many years ago with a large number of suppliers. There are a number of vendors that exclusively support flash storage such as SanDisk and Viking Modular. This includes storage targeted at embedded applications like SanDisk's iSSD that is a SATA II flash chip (see SATA Flash On A Chip) and Viking Modular's SATA Cube3(see The Storage Hierarchy Gets More Complex).
The remaining three hard drive vendors do have significant flash storage product lines. For example Western Digital has its SiliconDrive N1x line (see SiliconDrive N1x 128 Gbyte SATA Flash Drive). Seagate's flash storage (see Family Of Drives Span Enterprise Storage Needs) targets the enterprise. Toshiba also has a range of products (see Smart Storage).
So what does all this mean for embedded developers?
Well, less choice is definitely in the mix. Likewise, hard disk drive choices will be based on consumer and enterprise platforms versus embedded applications. Luckily many embedded applications already take advantage of these platforms or target those markets but developers targeting rugged environments will find it harder to deliver solutions that need large amounts of storage.
A harder job will be dealing with the rapidly changing product lines. Embedded designers often have longer term requirements where five years is a minimum lifetime. On the plus side, SAS and SATA have been improving while providing backward compatibility. Likewise, long term, these standards appear to be the ones that will be available in the future. This means there will likely be compatible products available over the long term but it will mean an on going certification or approval of hard drives for the lifetime of many embedded platforms.
The hard disk vendor consolidation will likely push many designers to solid state storage faster than they might have done before. This does mean getting a better handle on SSD limitations as well as advantages. So where will your designs be headed?