A New Perspective on Centuries of IT…and The Demise of Disk Drives

Perspective is everything. And the start of a New Year is traditionally when we look forwards and embark upon some predictions. But our perspective very often – and logically - defines those predictions. After all, what we know (or at least believe we know) is clear, and such clarity determines our outlook. This much is straightforward…..but what if we adjust our perspective? Put another way, a change of perspective can change what we know, or at least can put new facts into the assumptions we use to make our predictions.

Hence the title of this blog. We don’t have centuries of IT history – I don’t think many people would dispute that, even though the roots of current digitized manipulation can be traced back via punch cards and the abacus. But “Information Technology” as we currently understand it has really only been with us for decades; and in those terms every step forward – think of the PC, internet, cloud and mobile computing for instance – looks transformative. These things are certainly dramatic and valuable, but making predictions from these usually restricts us to gradual technology. Sure, we are putting mini-tablets on our wrists now, but that’s just logic and miniaturization. And now for a short diversion from all-things- IT…..but enjoy the story and then we shall return!

The origin of these grandiose thoughts was a BBC 4 radio programme (they are not programs over there!) that I caught while on a trip to my homeland UK earlier this month. It was the initial episode of a series that would consider the history of the British Isles (itself mainly a political and geographic amalgam of short existence in the big scheme of things). Anyhow….back to perspective. The presenter first made the point that – as I am sure many of us would agree – the UK (or England, United Kingdom, take your pick) is an “old country” and other places, such as Australia and America are “new countries”. This probably doesn’t on its own seem startling, since we all know there were indigenous peoples in both the latter areas way before the likes of Cook and Columbus (or whomever it was!) arrived. What is fascinating is that the latest, accepted evidence suggests that what-is-now-known-as the British Isles has actually only had continuous human occupation for about 11,500 years….or, to put it differently, for less time than either what-is-now-known as Australia and America. From this perspective then – that of human occupation over the millennia – Dear Old Blighty is actually the ingénue!

Perspective makes a huge difference. And so our prognostications at this time of the year about what will happen in our industry (for I considered writing such a blog) are really just short-term well-based guesses based on a very limited perspective. So, sure, I can ‘fortell’ – for instance - that flash will become more important over the next few years, that ‘software-defined storage’ will become the norm and that a hybrid-cloud model is going to be used by just about everybody. Elsewhere, security will get worse and more problematic before it gets better (although it will), and massive big-data-analytical-webs-of-connection will increasingly control, and improve, our lives. Looking further ahead, maybe computers will start to exhibit more ‘human’ senses and maybe we will either supplement or replace human brains in the embryo so that we can do everything just that bit better (and of course use in-vitro DNA analysis to not only preclude cancer but also ensure that the Amazon drones will deliver the correct size clothing for the first few years of our offspring’s life….).

Between science-fact (what’s likely in the next year or three….the stuff of annual predictions) and science-maybe (“wild” ideas like Star Trek medical scanners and non-invasive repairers) I think there’s an area that is determined by perspective.

So – finally, I hear you say! – let’s address the question, and likelihood, of the transition from hard-disk-drives (HDDs) to something else….today flash, tomorrow more ‘x’RAM of some sort, and thereafter who knows. There’s nothing magic, or inevitable, or righteous about HDDs. It’s simply that for most of us, pretty much all we have known – in other words our perspective – is a world where data (all or most of it) gets stored on disks. To many outside the rarified world of mainframes (where the original IBM term of DASD – “Direct Access Storage Device”- still survives; and may sound stilted, but is darned accurate) you will actually find that the words “storage” and “disk” are used as synonyms. Again, that makes sense from the perspective of the last 5 or 6 decades. But – frankly – two things strike me as obvious if we step back and take a longer-term perspective:

  1. HDD’s have really been our only practical, least-worst option for most data for a long time…certainly for the time that we have had modern IT. The rapid rise of flash, and the eventual demise of spinning disk drives just makes sense (more on this below). Now, I am certainly not being an apologist for the sudden overnight extinction of “diskosaurus,” but the rapid current move to deploy varying types of solid-state storage (across many devices, and in many iterations, sometimes just judiciously added and sometimes replacing chunks of spinning data) is certainly a glimpse of the future. It is too logical to ignore, as the price becomes more right for more of the data….
  2. And that brings me to my second point: the use of a catch-all phrase – “storage” – is a disservice we have done ourselves for ages, and is a perspective bourne of the technology limitations we have had and not the IT needs we serve. “Storage” is really about two distinct things – the first is “keeping stuff” and the other is “doing things with stuff”. Put differently there’s data retention and there’s data manipulation or processing. And that’s how we need to start thinking. From a short- to mid- term perspective we are gradually moving the latter need (actually doing something with our data) on to solid-state of some sort…or at least to have solid-state in the mix, via caching or tiering or some workloads on all-flash arrays. This is because the economics makes sense with [mainly] flash; conversely, economics have not yet made sense for “retention data” to make the move off of HDDs (and/or tape). It may take years or decades for this to happen, because powerful and technically gifted organizations and universities on both sides of the debate (HDDs versus solid-state) are going to juke it out for…..well, for as long as it takes to make the eventual change.

But, taking the longer perspective, we won’t have spinning things involved for anything in IT. Taking the longer perspective we won’t think – as we do today – of HDDs as the old country that is under pressure, but instead we’ll look back at the first century or so of IT where we had a ‘blip’ and were forced into a stop-gap measure of using spinning metal platters covered in rust with actuator arms more suited to 78s and LPs, to be the repository for the information that powers the [then] modern world! Anyone for spray-on DNA-based storage that you apply like paint (or maybe hairspray for the global-mobility version) should your connection to the singular-worldwide-computer need upgrading?!

Topics: Storage IT Infrastructure