Mac of the Future: Storage

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To guess at the kinds of storage options Mac buyers will likely have in 2013 and 2014, you just have to look at the storage industry as a whole. That’s because Apple is relatively conservative when it comes to storage: It doesn’t break new ground in the same way it does in, say, displays.

The SSD roadmap

Solid-state drive prices, which had been decreasing steadily for years, plummeted in 2012, falling over 50 percent in the first half of the year and bringing the cost per gigabyte well under one dollar. It’s not uncommon now to see 512GB SSDs selling for under $400. Prices will continue to fall over the next 18 to 24 months, and a 512GB SSD will likely retail for under $200 by the end of 2014. It’s important to note, however, that those are retail prices. Apple charges $500 more for the MacBook Air with 512GB of flash storage than it does for the model with 256GB.

In the next 24 months, the maximum storage capacity for MacBooks will probably double, but the speed of that storage will not. Current-generation SSDs are already pushing the limits of the 6-gbps SATA 3.0 interface in today’s computers, and—aside from SATA Express, which uses PCIe channels—no higher-speed SATA specification is planned for the next two years. There is, however, some progress to be made with small random read and write operations, the operations that make a computer feel fast when you’re not copying large amounts of data. Manufacturers will focus on improving those functions rather than ramping up sustained read and write speeds.

All SSD, all the time?

SSDs will likely become standard equipment on all MacBooks; the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro with Retina display are already solid-state-only and will stay that way. But storage quantities will probably increase.

As manufacturers develop higher-density NAND modules (the flash memory chips that SSDs use), Apple and other vendors will be able to squeeze more storage capacity into the same amount of space. Current MacBooks use 64GB NAND packages, the highest-density ones available. The 512GB Air (the highest-capacity model) uses eight of them, and the Retina MacBook Pro tops out at 768GB. Memory manufacturers such as Samsung and IMFT are working on higher-density NAND that will enable 128GB packages in the next year. This means that the next wave of Airs will likely bear a maximum of 1TB of flash storage, and that the next Retina Pros will have 1.5TB. By the end of 2014, the top-end Airs and Retina Pros could have 2TB or more of flash storage for around the same price as today’s top-end configurations.

The standard MacBook Pro is the only Apple laptop still offering a traditional hard-drive option, and it will probably do so for at least one more product cycle. Standard 2.5-inch drives will reach 2TB within the next two years, before we hit the limits of current technology. However, if Apple continues to position the MacBook Air as the everyperson’s laptop, with the Retina MacBook Pro as the high-end model, you might expect the company to discontinue the old unibody MacBook Pro entirely, perhaps as soon as next year. That move would leave the Retina MacBook Pro as the only Pro in 2014, and it would mean the end of mechanical hard drives in the MacBook.

Mechanical drives

Apple will continue to use traditional platter-based hard drives in the desktop and in the cloud. Although the company is trying to downplay the role of the desktop computer as the family’s computing and storage hub, customers are stubbornly sticking with that model. For such users, Apple desktops will need to offer terabytes of storage for movies, pictures, and music.

Apple’s consumer desktops, the Mac mini and iMac, will continue to offer both mechanical and flash storage options for the next 24 months. Two years from now the mini will offer up to 2TB of flash or 3TB of hard disk; the Server iteration (if still available) will offer both at once. Of course, you can always add a second hard drive or SSD to your mini through a (relatively) simple surgery, provided that the internals don’t change too much.

The iMac uses a 3.5-inch hard drive with an optional 2.5-inch SSD; if the same form factor is available in two years, you will be able to configure it with 6TB of mass storage and 1TB of flash space.

If Apple doesn’t discontinue the Mac Pro, the company will update it in 2013 to an Intel chipset with faster, better 6-gbps SATA support, almost certainly Ivy Bridge-E. You’ll be able to configure its four drive bays separately. By 2014 each bay will max out at 6TB of platter drives or 2TB of flash, and you’ll be able to stripe the drives together for much faster throughput, achieving over 1 GBps for two SSDs in RAID 0. You’ll be able to add a fiber-channel SAS card or an external Thunderbolt RAID chassis for even more storage space.

With its most recent round of announcements, Apple added another option for desktop storage: the Fusion Drive, a 1TB (on the mini) or 3TB (on the iMac) mechanical drive coupled with 128GB of flash storage. The flash storage holds the OS and programs and contains a small write cache, while the mechanical drive holds documents and everything else. OS X manages the storage. The technology is similar to existing hybrid drive options that have been available for Windows PCs, but it represents the first time that the hybrid feature is integrated into the OS itself. Given Apple’s goal of simplicity, you can expect the Fusion Drive option to become more common in the next few years, with both the flash space and the mechanical space increasing with each update.

iCloud and cloud storage

As everyday computing moves from desktops to flash-bearing laptops, smartphones, and tablets, what happens to the gigs and gigs of data we can’t bring with us? Increasingly, we’ll be storing it in the cloud. iCloud already lets you stream your music, photos, documents, and more to your MacBook or iOS devices; Google offers similar features to Android users, while Microsoft is chasing the same with SkyDrive. Subscription streaming services such as iTunes Match, Pandora, and Spotify have already made locally stored music files a thing of the past for many people. Expect streaming adoption to accelerate over the next two years, and expect Apple to increase iCloud’s paid storage tiers to accommodate that growth.

Streaming relies on always-on Internet, which unfortunately isn’t always on, particularly in North America, where broadband penetration and speed lag behind much of Europe and Asia. You’ll still need local storage in 2014. But unless you have a desktop, none of that storage will be on traditional platter drives.

The cloud itself will continue to rely on mechanical drives. All the music, movies, and documents you stream to your device will live on millions of traditional hard drives in vast data centers all across the world. Even if those data centers use SSDs and RAM disks for their most frequently accessed files and allocation tables, the bulk of their storage will continue to be on mechanical drives.

So even if you’ve switched to an all-SSD Mac, you’ll still be using mechanical drives for the foreseeable future.

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