Student Life

Thailand floods may cause a major technological shift

In the computer industry, major paradigm shifts occur when new technology appears which outperforms old technology at a similar cost. One of these technology shifts may take place very soon, as the flooding in Thailand has caused the price of rotational hard disk drives to skyrocket in the past few weeks, as such drives are manufactured there. This price increase may be enough to push many PC manufacturers to adopt solid state drives more widely in their computers.

Since the 1960s, computer hard drive manufacturers have doubled the capacities of manufactured hard drives approximately every year and a half. Rotational hard drives work by revolving several disks, each coated in a magnetic material, rapidly around a spindle. An electromagnetic tip mounted on a reciprocating arm passes over top of these disks, and reads and writes magnetic fields on the surface of the platters, which stores data to, and reads data from, the disk. By making the size of an individual bit on the surface of the disk smaller and smaller, hard drive manufacturers have been able to increase the storage capacity of these disks.

In September, a two terabyte hard drive cost approximately $100—about five cents per gigabyte. Today, these drives cost well over $200 at most online retail outlets. And due to the Thailand floods, these prices are only going to keep rising in the coming months. When flooding closed the plants, the steady stream of the devices to the market was interrupted, and while there is no actual shortage yet, it’s coming.

This market turmoil could have a serious impact on the parts used in retail computers. For the past 50 years, rotational hard disk drives have been the primary mass storage device used in computers. Recently, however, a new technology called flash memory has emerged for creating hard drives and is used to produce solid state drives. These devices function much like your USB memory key; they both use NAND flash memory to store data. NAND is effectively just a group of transistors forming a circuit which can store data in the absence of voltage. Because there are no moving parts, the drives are known as “solid state.”

Solid state drives are much faster than their rotational counterparts, and don’t suffer the same set of problems. The disk on a rotational hard drive is in constant rotation. Thus, every time the data in question recently passes the read-write head, the device must wait an entire rotation for the chance to see it again, taking several milliseconds—a long time by computer standards. In flash memory, however, any bit of data is immediately accessible. Additionally, flash memory drives need not be defragmented. However, they have slightly higher failure rates, and cost more than rotational drives. These concerns are abating as manufacturing technology improves.

In the computer industry, the driving forces are cost and performance. When the cost of a new, better technology drops to be on par with the old technology, the industry shifts. That shift may very well be taking place for mass storage devices, as the price gap between the two types of hard drives diminishes. While the two technologies still are not close in price, the increase in price of the rotational drives may be enough to push many manufacturers to move to the new technology. While the change in technology is inevitable, the current market shortage could catalyze it.

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