Antony Adshead

Pure Storage: HDDs dead by 2028 and our flash will replace it

Pure Storage says spinning disk is doomed, and only it can provide a replacement. We look at the rationale behind its bold message, and the possible impacts of such a scenario

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At the Pure Storage Accelerate event in Las Vegas this week, a couple of ideas got piled up higher than a heap of end-of-lifed hard disk drives (HDDs) in a junk yard.

One of them was the company’s contention that the days of spinning disk are limited. In fact, the company proposes it will be dead as a storage medium by 2028, with no new HDDs sold after that.

Another is that Pure Storage will be the agent of this change by means of its ability to market very high-capacity flash drives that bring down the price per gigabyte (GB) to a level that will make HDDs uneconomic.

Here, we flesh out what Pure argues and look at the potentially seismic effects should some of the claims it makes come to pass.

Pure can make very big flash drives

So, what will all this spinning disk storage be replaced by? Well, as it happens, by hugely capacious solid-state drives (SSDs), namely those made by Pure Storage, which puts together flash modules, cache-like capacity and drive controller software in the DirectFlash Modules (DFM) that populate its FlashArray and FlashBlade arrays and which come in triple-level cell (TLC) – for performance – and quad-level cell (QLC) – for capacity – NAND flash variants.

At the event, Pure announced the availability of 75TB (terabyte) DFMs, and promised that by 2026 these modules would achieve 300TB in capacity.

At 75TB, that is way beyond anything sold by the big drive makers, which currently top out for practical purposes at around 20-something terabytes.

The aim: Drive out HDDs from the market

“The last 10 years of Pure have been all about replacing disk in block storage,” said Pure’s chief marketing officer, Matt Burr. “The next decade represents the attainment of that in the eradication of spinning disk,” he added. 

And just to be clear, the company doesn’t just mean flash will replace spinning disk in high-performance use cases. Pure founder and chief visionary officer John Colgrove makes it clear that the aim is wider than that. “People thought that flash would only replace some HDDs, but when flash brings advantages in power, space, cooling, when you can buy a 300TB flash module, why would you think about buying inefficient spinning disk hard drives?”

Nearline now; almost everything else after that

20c per gigabyte. That’s the figure Pure wants to make sure sticks in people’s minds – for now at least. That’s because it’s the price point it says its DFMs can attain – and which makes spinning disk uncompetitive for nearline and secondary data use cases. 

Now, a cursory glance at the price per gigabyte of HDD shows up at really only a cent or two. That’s a way off 20c. But, Pure insists we take into account whole life costs, such as power and cooling, and space, with such a vast disadvantage in density meaning HDDs must be stacked up many more rack units high to achieve similar capacity to an array made up of, for example, 300TB DFMs.

“The last 10 years of Pure have been all about replacing disk in block storage. The next decade represents the attainment of that in the eradication of spinning disk”
Matt Burr, Pure Storage

And then there’s the management overhead. The image of humans having to constantly attend to failed hard drives in endless rows of rack shelving is one Pure was keen to leave us with this week. And it’s a fair-ish one. Cloud provider Backblaze reveals failure stats for its HDD estate, which last year stood at 1.37% across 230,921 drives, which amounts to 8.66 HDD failures per day.

That 20c figure is just for now though. Pure has in mind that beyond the near future, price decreases for flash will eventually make it the obvious choice for JBOD storage (10c-15c per gigabyte) and deep archive and hyperscaler capacity which comes in at around the 5c to 10c mark.

“We’ve pierced the 7,200rpm HDD market with the 20c per gigabyte price point,” said CEO Charles Giancarlo (pictured above). Looking beyond that, he said: “There will be no place left for disk to operate.” 

Catch us if you can. You can’t 

Assuming Pure Storage is on the right track here, and high-capacity flash modules can blow HDDs out of the market – and do it much more suddenly than one might imagine – then what’s to stop its competitors doing exactly as Pure plans to do, and produce their own monster capacity drives?

Pure’s argument is that competitors don’t possess the smarts. “Anyone can copy the DFM,” says Giancarlo. “What’s hard to replicate is the software that operates them. The software that runs SSDs is that which was designed for HDDs, but it’s sub-optimal when you put it on flash. That makes it more costly and it doesn’t last as long.”

“We’ve pierced the 7,200rpm HDD market with the 20c per gigabyte price point. There will be no place left for disk to operate”
Charles Giancarlo, Pure Storage

He’s talking about the on-board firmware on solid-state drives and contrasting that with Pure’s patents in software that knit together the raw flash on the DFM into a much larger whole, with management functionality across the whole unit that’s built for the job.

“That means we will accelerate the density of DFMs faster than the SSD makers can,” he said. “It’ll take years to get where we are.”

Essentially, that is the ability to gain access to data held on such drives. 

According to Pure’s director of technical strategy, Eric Burgener, other suppliers could put lots of flash on a drive and give it some management software, but they would lack the 10-ish years of Pure’s IP built into its Purity operating environment that allows for efficient input/output. 

“Other vendors could do it, but nobody would buy it because they couldn’t get to the data efficiently,” said Burgener, pointing out that Pure has something like a two to five times efficiency advantage over off-the-shelf SSD. “The capacity would be there but the performance wouldn’t match it.”

There will be casualties

It’s a compelling story. Pure has come out with some convincing points and has helpfully hooked many of them onto timescales and price points. They will provide some useful measures by which to assess how all this plays out.

If what Pure predicts has some substance to it, and this change is so potentially huge – think of r/evolutions such as vinyl to CD, VHS to DVD, Blockbuster to Netflix – with suppliers left on the rocks by such rapid change, then surely the giants of storage media must be watching and investing in research.

But just assume they are way behind, as Pure says they are, and there is one company that can potentially disrupt an existing market so fundamentally, then we are looking in the next decade at one company cornering the market for the most in-demand, most performant variants of storage media.

The flipside of the combination of “no more HDDs by 2028” and “no one can catch us” is a small supplier (compared with the drive maker giants) that could struggle to fulfil demand or be subject to huge market pressures.

So, it could be that Pure will get an offer it can’t refuse as the incumbent media manufacturers scramble to catch up. 

However it pans out, it will be interesting to watch this space – it’s not likely to turn out like anyone thinks it will from the point of view of today.

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