Does the HDD shortage mean that SSDs will soon be affordable for everybody?

The recent devastating floods in Thailand, in addition to causing hundreds of fatalities and leaving thousands homeless, have also brought many manufacturing plants to their knees. For anybody who uses a computer, this has a very direct impact: many hard drive plants were located in the flooded areas, and even those who were away from the area were affected as some parts (most notably spindle motors) were built by factories that are now under water. An up-to-date report of the situation can be found via Google News.

The demand and supply law was immediately brought into the picture. A 7200-rpm 2 TB hard drive, that just three weeks ago cost about €80, now costs in excess of €200. Substitute that with your currency of choice if you so prefer, but prices all over the globe have doubled, and in some cases even tripled. I have spoken with resellers I’m familiar with, and the price increases are being pushed from the bottom of the distribution chain: national distributors are selling at higher prices because they buy at higher prices themselves. I have been told that 250 GB hard drives, which were almost a rarity a month ago, have begun to bubble up through inventories, and they cost as much as 750 GB or even 1 TB drives cost just a month ago. I have witness a website pushing up the price of a 1 TB disk from €92 to €147 in a matter of hours.

It’s a big mess.

Projections for a return to normality are dire: some plants are under as much as two meters of water, and it will take no less than four weeks to purge it all out. Then equipment has to be fixed, when possible, or entirely replaced. Analysts have estimated that the shortage will last throughout all Q1-2012, with its peak at the end of Q4-2011. If you need a hard drive, buy now before it’s too late. Prices can and will go up even further; indeed, they increase pretty much daily.

I built a custom PC system for a client on October 17. A 7200-rpm 1 TB Hitachi hard drive cost him €47, VAT and taxes included. Two weeks later, it was €112. A few days ago I urgently found myself in need for storage, and after browsing as many online stores as I could, I found my way through a retailer and found a 2 TB USB2 unit whose price had not been raised, unlike the others (they probably simply forgot to do so.) I picked one of the two only remaining specimens, paid €99 for it, and when I got into the office I tore it apart and extracted the SATA disk that lay inside it. Granted, it’s a 5900-rpm disk and it’ll be painstakingly slow if I decide to do some serious work on it, but right now I need it for mere storage and I was lucky to get it. In fact, I should have gotten the other specimen too. At this rate, it’d be an investment.

As the price per GB on spinning platters increases steadily, the question can’t be eluded: is this the unexpected push that SSD needs for mass adoption?

Currently, 7200-rpm 1 TB HDD retail for about €100; that means that each GB costs €0.10. A 128 GB solid-state drive costs about €150, or about €1.17/GB. Granted, it’s ten times as expensive, but the speed increase is unbeatable — we’re talking about a ten-fold increase in access speed – and the perceived gain is priceless. With the spinning hard drive being the last bottleneck left in a modern computer architecture, SSDs can make all the difference. Just look at this video, which is over a year old, to get an idea. They are also much less power-hungry, as there is no motor that has to spin all the time.

Right now SSDs are still way too expensive for general usage. For this reason, most people (and some manufacturers) use a small one as a boot disk, and a regular HDD for data storage. But how long will this be true, given that the price per GB of HDD is bound to grow daily?

Moreover, flash memory plants were only marginally affected by the floods, if even. Will they ramp up production and therefore lower the costs of SSD for end-users?

Perchance we will be seeing new, more balanced hybrid drives. Right now the only common unit is Seagate’s Momentus XT, which couples a regular 2.5″ hard drive (up to 500 GB) with 4 GB of flash storage. The firmware automatically – and, most importantly, in an OS-agnostic way – moves the most-accessed blocks from the disk to the flash area, resulting in a continuously increasing performance at each reboot. A few days ago, Seagate also announced that it will streamline its Barracuda line by removing the “green” versions of its disks, and start producing a 3.5″ hybrid, aptly called Barracuda XT. Will it have a big chunk of flash, perhaps 16 GB or 32 GB, and less spacious platters, such as no more than 1 TB?

If I were a betting man, I’d put some cash on that. While spinning disks still have a long life ahead, computing is changing and the current shortage will undoubtedly force manufacturers to rethink strategies, and I’m pretty sure that hybrids will soon become more commonplace than we ever thought they would.