Here’s why you won’t be able to buy a 26TB hard drive anytime soon

WD MyDrive
(Image credit: WD)

The future of hard disk drives couldn’t be more exciting despite the threat of SSD; that’s the impression we were left with after our interview with Ravi Pendekanti, SVP of HDD Product Management at one of the world’s largest hard disk drive manufacturers, Western Digital. 

Unlike its archrival Seagate, Western Digital has invested significantly in SSD technology through its acquisition of Sandisk in 2016. It has also doubled down on hard disk drives and currently holds the world record for the biggest hard disk drive with a 26TB model launched earlier in 2022. 

Other than peering into the future of HDD, our Q&A session covered availability of the aforementioned 26TB HDD, whether WD had any updates on the 50TB drives mentioned earlier this year, whether there’s space for another form factor and more.

Do you envision a shift to another form factor or will 3.5-inch remain with us forever? Could there be a return to 5.25-inch or even more exotic formats (based on hyperscaler demand)?

Any HDD form factor change is not going to be easy to get market adoption. If it is needed, the shift will have to be very strategic and needs to be well thought through. One needs to consider many factors including $/TB and TCO improvement, cost in manufacturing, etc. 

With that said, we expect 3.5 in is the chosen form factor in the foreseeable future for hyperscaler demand. The EDSFF form factor standards, including the E1.S are seen in SSDs. The standard HDD form factor for enterprise and PC computers is 3.5-inch. In laptop computers, a smaller 2.5-inch is frequently used. The 5.25 inch drives were used in early computers and data centers.

Beyond cramming more platters on the Z-axis, having thinner platters and packing more bits per square inch, what other avenues are being explored?

Driving areal density in both CMR and SMR gain is our key focus. Western Digital is shipping the highest capacity HDDs in the industry with both CMR and SMR recording schemes with our recent Ultrastar family with 22TB and 26TB capacities, enabled by OptiNAND and an advanced HDD architecture. 

Our ePMR and UltraSMR technologies will continue to deliver even higher areal densities and corresponding drive capacities in the generations ahead to meet the challenges of data growth for our cloud and enterprise customers. HAMR has demonstrated great promise to scale areal density beyond 3Tb/sq in, but it still needs to address the long-term reliability and TCO challenges due to its unique writing process. We are working extensively on HAMR and expect that it will be the next recording scheme after ePMR.    

Storage TCO encompasses a number of variables: power consumption is one of them and compared to other technologies, HDD fares badly especially at rest. What is WDC doing to move the power per PB needle in the right direction?

For hyperscalers, CSPs, co-location and enterprises, scaling efficiently and cost-effectively to meet data growth in a manner that is sustainable and environmentally friendly is paramount to their success. 

HDDs play a key role in all of this and are the most economical media to store massive amounts of data online and at scale. However, for an HDD to be effective for lowering TCO, it must offer high-capacity, low power, performance and proven reliability in a cost-effective design. Also, moving to the highest capacity HDDs quickly means scaling efficiently without increasing the physical footprint. 

For example, let’s say a customer needs a total of about 2PB of storage and they’re currently using 16TB HDDs. If they migrate to 20TB, they can utilize 20% fewer servers to get that same storage amount, which would use about 17% less watts/TB. If instead they migrate to our 22TB Ultrastar HDDs, they can use 27% fewer servers and use 26% less W/TB compared to the 16TB. This is significant and translates into overall data center power and cooling savings, which play an important role in helping data centers lower TCO and operate greener.

Right now, WD's biggest hard drive is 26TB, but you don't sell it on your website yet. Is it because hyperscalers are buying all the stock that they can or because it is trickier to manufacture, so there's not enough supply around?

For applications and environments that are storing large amounts of sequentially written data or warm/cold data that is less frequently accessed, SMR and our  new 26TB UltraSMR HDDs can provide very significant TCO advantages. But these are host-managed drives that are not drop-in replacements for CMR HDDs. They require host software and stack modification with sequentialized data streams and error handling for random writes. 

Because of this, we work closely with strategic hyperscale and OEM customers directly on sales and implementation. 

It took WD roughly 5 years to more than double hard disk capacity from 12TB to 26TB. Will it take another five years to double that to 50TB?

Stay tuned on this as we continue to challenge the traditional innovation cycles.

A presentation earlier in 2022 mentioned 50TB+ archival storage. Could you shed more light about these? Would it be a trade off between performance and storage capacity? i.e. much lower spindle speeds means less vibration, the ability to pack more platters.

We are working closely with a few strategic, large-scale customers to help define what archival storage may look like. 

Today, the largest percent of data stored is being accessed rarely, if ever, and this cold data is getting colder. The challenge for this tier of storage is developing the right balance of performance vs capacity for accessing data at the right cost point or $/TB. 

We believe the future of archive storage is based on the hard drive. Our mission is to help solve the cold storage/deep archive problem and what that looks like, which may be, perhaps, a slightly different form or capability than today.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.