Archival Storage: Western Digital's 50TB secret custom solution

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At its Investor Day, Western Digital not only talked about sales and market opportunities, but also revealed some product plans that were previously unknown. The head of the HDD division spoke of special archive storage with 50 TB, which is practically “just around the corner”.

These words came from Ashley's mouth Gorakhpurwalla, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Western Digital's HDD division, speaking on stage at Western Digital 2022 Investor Day.

Special 50 TB drives for a few customers

Western Digital has been working on “archival storage”, as the presentation slide mysteriously calls it, for some time and wants the 50 TB mark therefore have reached shortly. 50TB would be roughly double the maximum the company's traditional 3.5-inch HDDs offer, which have now reached 26TB.

Four segments for HDDs

But we see with our roadmap and our development we are right around the corner essentially from delivering 50 TB (?) units

Ashley Gorakhpurwalla, Western Digital

According to Gorakhpurwalla, the archive storage is specialized products that are tailored for only a few selected but supposedly large customers. However, the manager acknowledged that these products “may not be available to the public” and are reserved for a few major customers.

How the enormous storage capacity is technically implemented remains a secret. With flash memory, SSDs with 100 TB have long been possible, but they are very expensive. However, since the presentation is about HDD products, special hard drives are conceivable that have significantly more or larger magnetic disks and go beyond common form factors. Based on the technology of the new “UltraSMR” HDD, which has 10 disks with 2.6 TB each, 20 of these disks would theoretically enable a hard disk drive with 52 TB.

In an interview in December, Gorakhpurwalla had already hinted at the special archive storage based on HDD technology. The Blocks and Files report speculated about a return of the larger platters from previous 5.25-inch HDDs, but that sounds unlikely. After all, this format has not been produced for a good 20 years. Having special platters manufactured in small series for selected customers shouldn't be worthwhile anyway.

Dual actuator still a topic

< p class="p text-width">At the other end, the graphics list the HDD technology called “Dual Actuator”, where the storage capacity is lowest but the performance is highest. These are hard drives with two actuators, i.e. the mechanical arm on which the read/write heads are located, which hover over the magnetic disks rotating at thousands of revolutions per minute and have to be aligned very precisely for data access.

With two of these units, the performance should be almost doubled; Western Digital calls the factor 1.8 here.

The technology is not a new idea and was already presented by Seagate in 2017 as Multi Actuator Technology. This manufacturer later called the technology Mach.2 and now has its first product, the Exos 2X14 (PDF).

It remains unclear whether and when Western Digital will continue to pursue this approach . Ashley Gorakhpurwalla continued to speak of a “concept” that, as a special solution, would probably serve a small customer base. Such a solution is far from the performance of an SSD.