Seagate: Solid-State Disks Will Never Replace Magnetic Storage

A statement to BetaNews today by one of Seagate Technology's top managers indicates that some of the content of yesterday's Wall Street Journal story -- whose original online headline was "Seagate to Enter Flash Memory Market," prior to having been edited -- may have been inaccurate.

Josh Tinker, market development manager for Seagate's Personal Compute division (not a typo), told BetaNews this afternoon that his company does indeed plan to enter the solid-state disk drive market, but has no plans to shift production -- as reports yesterday indicated -- away from traditional hard disk drives any time soon.

"Seagate CEO Bill Watkins did state the company's plans to also introduce its own solid-state drive products some time in 2008," Tinker told us, confirming at least that part of the WSJ story. "This will augment what is already the broadest product line in the drive industry."

But the Journal also reported that Seagate was likely to begin its move toward flash-based storage with an entry into the hybrid drive market, where flash memory is used as an interim cache to support an HDD on the back end. As many of its customers already know, Seagate already began shipping hybrid drives last March. Tinker added, "We believe a large part of the storage market will adopt this [hybrid] technology going forward."

However, Tinker made clear, "We are not moving away from rotating magnetic storage in any way, but are adding solid-state products to our portfolio, including hybrid and SSD."

Tinker did not comment on whether Seagate would plan to invest in a flash memory manufacturer in whole or in part, as many financial analysts yesterday presumed the WSJ story had reported. Seagate had at one time a 40% stake in flash memory manufacturer SanDisk, but later sold its shares during the onset of the flash price wars. Now that SanDisk's fortunes have rebounded, many believe Seagate regrets that sale.

But regardless of whatever Seagate as a company feels about flash memory, Josh Tinker's personal opinion on solid-state drives is a matter of public record. Last May, during a panel on the topic of hybrid and solid-state drives at WinHEC 2007, Tinker responded to attendees' questions about when his company or the industry at large would make the shift to flash, by saying point-blank that it would never happen.

Flash memory does have a rightful place in storage technology, Tinker argued, and that place is in hybrid drives. The geography of memory as a storage component has yet to be fully understood and appreciated, so initial tests regarding the reliability of memory versus spinning disks have yet to take into account the practical uses of SSDs that will emerge. In a discussion with us after the panel, Tinker invoked this metaphor: We've yet to start taking SSDs with us on camping trips.

Once we know what the real-world operating parameters of real SSDs would be, he argued, we would be able to compute new metrics for mean-time-between-failure (MTBF) that would account for SSDs' true performance. Once that happens, he said, we may want to re-examine claims that flash memory MTBF stands tall over that of HDDs.

But that was last May, and a company's perspective can change quite dramatically in one quarter. Something has certainly changed, if only slightly, since one year ago, when Seagate's Watkins told BusinessWeek magazine not to expect his company to ever make a serious investment in flash.

In that interview, Watkins said he once asked the leaders of the big three flash memory manufacturers -- Toshiba, SanDisk, and Hitachi -- "If you believe in flash so much, then sell me your hard-drive business. None of them would."

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