They've had it good for a very long time. The last remaining old-style IT mechanical hold outs; disk and tape, are still dominating the storage technology roost. They spin and they stream and they slow things down. But disks provide fast and cheap access compared to the flash alternative while tape's cost per GB is lower than optical technology.

Are we beginning though to see the dawning of new technology ages? Will flash or some other technology provide better fast access to lots of data than disk? Could holography bring spinning, meaning random-access, advantages to archive and backup whilst equalling or beating tape's media cost? Here we look at disk. A subsequent article will look at tape and examine the possible impact of holography.

Non-disk drives
Seagate, the world's leading hard disk drive manufacturer has announced a 5GB compact flash memory card. So the answer to fast-access storage problem questions from Seagate is now disk - or flash. It's a step change.

BitMicro has announced a 155GB flash memory drive with UltraSCSI320 connectors. This offers hard disk-like capacity and mainstream HDD connectivity but still at a price. Capacity is not a flash memory problem. Price is. Flash memory cells are expensive to produce. If you have to have flash memory, as military and government security institutions must, then price is not much of a factor in your purchase. Texas Memory Systems is making very healthy profits against this background with its RamSAN products.

It's always the case with a semi-conductor technology that price falls drastically as volume production starts. Nevertheless it doesn't appear yet that flash per MB prices are falling fast enough to upset mainstream HDD prices.

In the new very small storage format consumer devices like digital camcorders, PDAs, MP3 players and advanced mobile phones, we are seeing competion for the storage medium of choice between flash memory and micro hard drives such as the 1, 2 and 3GB pared down ones from Cornice and also Hitachi GST with its new 5GB capacity drive and thinner packaging than before.

The fact that HDD makers are pitching in so strongly to this market suggests that they don't think a flood of flash is going to wipe their businesses out. However, flash memory proponents point to blade servers as a prime prospect for flash drives.

On the other hand, disk drive manufacturers are on the verge of upping recording density with perpendicular recording technology being used. Toshiba has announced an 80GB 1.8inch drive using such perpendicular recording.

A blunt summary could be that flash devices are not cheapening fast enough to cause disk manufacturers much of a problem. They might....they might not.

So if not flash, what? DataSlide has pizeo-electric-activated vibrating recording arrays with data being written and read by semi-conductor arrays of read/write heads, analogous to the CCDs in digital cameras. A prototype has been built and development is proceeding apace. The attraction, apart from greatly-improved storage capacity is that pretty standard semi-conductor manufacturing techniques can be used, leading to a good cost profile.

What's the spin
Disks have been spinning for many, many years. THe rate of progress has been fast and impressive and shows no signs of ceasing. But CPU capacities and speeds, ditto memory, have been increasing faster still. The mechanical slowness of disks and tape is being improved by backing up to disk. That is one answer to the tape speed problem but loads up the eggs in the disk basket even further.

Disks are mechanical; they break. They are inherently much slower than CPUs and memory. Flash memory is fast but costly. Dataslide's technology is still to be proven and commercially prototyped. Either could be the first step towards ending disks' hegemony over fast-access storage.

If you have ever suffered a disk crash then you might be pretty positive about that prospect.