The Mac of the Future

Mac of the future: storage

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Tavis Coburn
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the first 1TB portable hard drive, the rise of cloud-based storage services, and the first wave of consumer-friendly network-attached storage (NAS) hardware enter our homes. So what comes next? Here is what the storage vendors themselves have to say.

Magnetic drives survive

Contrary to some gloomy punditry, magnetic-based hard drives are still going to be the dominant storage mechanisms for at least the next two years, in laptops as well as desktop Macs. Sure, we’ll likely see an increased use of flash (see below), but the majority of desktop and portable drives sold over the next two years will probably still be magnetic.

Their capacities will continue to grow. Drive vendors say we’ll see 4TB desktop and 2TB portable drives within the next two years. And it won’t take any fantastic new technology to get there, just the steady development of the current technology.

But there are limits to the capacities those technologies can support. Vendors foresee smaller jumps in capacity becoming the norm. But at the same time, users may reach the limits of what they need to store. Some vendors say we may reach a point of equilibrium between the capacities they can supply and the amount of storage people need.

We’ll also likely see a shift from desktop drives to portable models. Portable hard drives are bus-powered, small, and rugged. Consumers may find these three factors attractive, assuming they don’t need more than the 2TB a 2.5-inch portable drive can provide.

The rise of flash

While magnetic-based storage will still be the norm, flash-based storage will continue to gain market share. One big reason is that prices will come down. However, they won’t come down enough to beat magnetic drives—at least not any time soon. Vendors expect flash to claim maybe 5 or 6 percent of the storage market.

But there’s a wild card in play here: Apple. With its announcement that the MacBook Air line will rely solely on flash-based storage, Apple is clearly betting big on flash. As Apple positions itself as a purveyor of premium products, flash is a good way to differentiate its portables from generic, $500 Windows laptops.

But, still, because of the scarcity of flash chips and their high price, storage execs doubt that Apple will deploy flash drives alone in its MacBook and MacBook Pro lines any time soon.

NAS in the home

Home users are likely to look increasingly to the data redundancy provided by RAID units—technology that has previously been the province of IT departments alone.

With the capacities of desktop drives getting so big, it makes sense to share that capacity throughout the house. And as desktop capacities rise, the price delta between network-attached and direct-attached storage is narrowing. This means that NAS drives for the home will become more common.

Consumers may not know they’re using RAID. Vendors say that they’re likely to sell these devices as automatic backup tools and as home media servers, or with other similarly friendly branding. Mirroring and all the other technologies behind RAID will be handled automatically, without any intervention from the consumer.

Up in the clouds

The elephant in the room for many storage vendors is the cloud. Cloud storage services offer nearly infinite capacity and presumably higher reliability. The only downside to storing your data up there: You need a fast Internet connection to reliably access it.

Some vendors say people will probably use a combination of tools to store stuff: You might store your data locally but also mirror key data online. Traditional storage vendors are also talking about hybrid solutions: drives that mirror themselves in the cloud, for example. Right now, that kind of redundancy doesn’t exist; in the future, it may become commonplace.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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