Seagate And The Storage Spiral

Seagate Technology (NYSE:STX), the world’s top supplier of disk drives, has an enviable problem these days: a dizzying array of storage hungry devices and datacenters that demand more capacity.

What’s a storage company to do? For one, make more drives to store all that content; two, place some bets on the future of hard disk technology, both in the enterprise and on the desktop.

Seagate recently did that when it launched a solid-state, all Flash drive in its storage offerings. Seagate’s offering, for example, uses NAND Flash memory.

The move won Seagate some plaudits from pundits. PC World ranked it among its 25 most innovative products in 2007, including one line with 265 megabytes of memory. According to PC World’s tests, the $190 Seagate Momentus 5400 PSD edged out the $299 Samsung SpinPoint MH80 in straight performance as well as in power conservation, and in price.

As the price of flash memory continues to decrease, expect engineers at Seagate to integrate even more solid state flash memory into traditional notebook hard drives in order to speed up access and save battery power.

Seagate isn’t the only one company integrating Flash in disk drives. SanDisk, for example, said this month that it would roll out more Flash-based drives for hard disk replacements in laptops with its 32 GB, 1.8-inch solid state drive (SSD). Although it had marketed the hybrid drives in niche markets, the latest move signaled it would be going mainstream with the move.

Seagate also announced a jump from fourth to second in worldwide share for 2.5-inch notebook PC and PC-related hard drives. Although pundits could argue it was late to market with 250 GB laptop drives (125 gigabyte per platter), the company’s spin is that it offers the greenest as well as the best performing 5400 RPM mainstream notebook drive.

Hard disks are made up of one or more platters, and the amount of data they can store is a function of the number of platters, the size of the platters, and the density of data on each one. Today, that translates to a cross vendor standard of 250 gigabytes per platter for 3.5 in drives and 125 gigabytes for 2.5 inch drives. So, a 500 gigabyte 3.5 inch disk will have two platters.

In terms of their focus on the 2.5 inch notebook drives, one could argue that Seagate is betting on the right horse. In 2007, said laptop drive revenue exceeded desktop revenue for the first time. The company is projecting that by 2010 laptop units shipped will jump ahead of desktop units.

PC shipment unit growth around the world is growing because of the mostly because of increasing notebook sales and also because of a significant increase in demand from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Middle East/Africa and of course Asia Pacific. But notebook sales alone can’t explain the continued demand for disks, so where is all this data coming from and who is storing it?

During the company’s discussion of earnings for its second fiscal quarter, which ended Dec. 28, 2007, Brian Dexheimer, Seagate’s chief marketing officer put it clearly: “DVR is over half of the demand of our 8.1 million shipped 2.5 inch drives. This compares with 50 million total units shipped overall in 2007. DVR growth of nearly 50 percent was a key driver.”

But the growth isn’t all fun, games and movies: Enterprise demand has grown 16 percent from last year to 8.3 million units in total. Seagate said it shipped a record 5.3 million units during the quarter.

Executives said they are seeing continued growth in the high capacity enterprise class SATA products, with the continued adoption of drive to drive backup solution at the expense of tape. SATA drives were traditionally installed in workstations and PCs while SCSI was used preliminary in datacenter applications. But datacenter usage is shifting, as disk storage becomes competitive with tape storage, backups are trending from tape to disk arrays. Video is also moving into the datacenter, which demands nearline storage .

Bill Watkins, Seagate’s CEO, said during the same Webcast: “We reported another quarter of double-digit revenue and profitability growth year over year, driven by the continued strong demand of storage across virtually every market for digital content from the home to the enterprise.”

This demand actually caused capacity issues for Seagate. It anticipated the increased demand for the next generation 3.5 inch PC disks, but not for the same density 2.5 inch notebook disks: According to Wickersham, the 250 gigabyte green and fast notebook drives are now ramping up to shipping in volume.

All in all, earnings rose by nearly three times for the quarter, compared to the same, year-ago time. This helps explain why, for now at least, another watchword for Seagate, as all this digital data sloshes around, is manufacturing capacity. Seagate said it has committed at least $900 million dollars this year to expand its ability to produce more storage devices.

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