NFR:Better Late Than Never?

NFR:Better Late Than Never?

Near-field recording`s competitive position may be slipping due to product delays, but the technology still holds great promise.

By John Haystead

It`s fairly common that major new storage technologies are rarely, if ever, brought to market according to initial timeline projections, and TeraStor`s near-field recording (NFR) is no exception. In June, TeraStor announced plans to ship a 10GB 5.25-inch NFR drive in the fourth quarter of this year, with a 20GB version due in the second quarter of 1999. Now, however, the company admits that its initial NFR product won`t ship until the second quarter of 1999, leading many industry observers to moderate their unequivocally positive projections for adoption of the technology.

While the delay does not appear to have lessened the enthusiasm of enterprise, library, and jukebox storage vendors--who need the capacity, performance, and cost benefits promised by NFR--it is nevertheless expected to significantly tighten the race between NFR and other technologies in the hotly contested removable storage market.

Opinions vary as to just how much impact the delayed release will ultimately have on NFR`s prospects, but Michael Peterson, president of Strategic Research Corp., in Santa Barbara, CA, says, "It`s definitely not good news. NFR will no longer be a dominating force in the removable market, but just another competitor. The window isn`t closed, but its competitive position is eroding and other technologies such as tape and DVD will now have a greater opportunity to close the gap."

Bob Abraham, vice president of Freeman Associates, another research firm in Santa Barbara, basically agrees with this assessment, but contends that "although it`s certainly true that time is of the essence, the opportunity is still there." Abraham points out that "there`s nothing else out there right now quite at the same position point, and it will take awhile for other technologies such as tape and DVD to get there, during which time NFR can also advance." Noting that TeraStor has been working for some time with a number of third-party software and hardware developers, Abraham thinks they should be able to bring products to market quickly when they finally do launch. "Still, as opposed to being a year or so ahead," he says, "they will now be just barely ahead."

Amyl Ahola, TeraStor president and COO, doesn`t downplay his disappointment over the schedule slippage. But, he claims, "there`s no question that our product will be out by mid-1999, and the market opportunities are still substantial. The windows are much broader than a few months and our advantages over competing products are still significant."

With the initial launch of NFR, TeraStor will target the high-capacity, low-cost-per-GB removable storage market [e.g., 4mm and 8mm tape and conventional magneto-optical (MO) drives]. Ahola says NFR will initially enter the mix right around the MO level and branch out from there.

Jim Porter, president of research firm Disk/Trend Inc., in Mountain View, CA, believes this target market remains a potentially solid niche for NFR, but adds that it`s nevertheless "essential that they deliver sometime in mid-1999." Porter says there`s no question that "conventional MO will be doomed by NFR once it actually gets into production," pointing out that standard MO technology is currently "barely up to 5GB at 5.25-inch, with a capacity road map generations behind TeraStor`s plans." The NFR head technology also promises much better performance than conventional MO (see "NFR: How It Works" below).

Relative cost/performance remains the key to NFR`s potential success against tape, and Porter thinks that targeting the high-end tape market makes good sense. "In the enterprise market, library storage is increasingly transitioning from pure backup applications to semi-online [or near-line] status. This is driving the market to fast-access, high-capacity storage, and you can`t do that with tape," says Porter.

Porter points out that this is also where NFR can potentially compete with hard disk drives. Although TeraStor is not currently targeting hard-disk drives (HDDs), Porter notes it`s a market segment they will eventually address. "First they have to be part of a reliable library system, but later, when the technology is more established and in high-volume production, they can look at moving into 100GB stack-of-disk configurations."

In the meantime, Porter notes that NFR will have a far less challenging task competing against tape drives. Noting that the duty-cycle specifications of tape drives are far lower than high-performance hard drives. Porter observes, "It`s a lot easier to start in a market where you can offer competitive advantages in access time at a comparable price per MB, and already be favorably regarded in terms of reliability."

Some early opportunities already exist for NFR in the high-capacity HDD market, however. Although Ahola says HDD is not one of their initial target markets, he points out that "there are some potential vertical applications such as video editing where we can offer a more cost-effective alternative." For example, many video-editing operations need to distribute files to multiple locations, and because of the relatively high cost of alternative media, this is usually done via tape. However, because of the slow performance of tape, data must then be transferred back to disk for actual editing operations. "NFR is close to hard disks in performance and to tape in cost, replacing the need for two media units with one," Ahola contends.

Elsewhere in the storage hierarchy, Ahola doesn`t see NFR competing with CD and DVD technologies in the short term, except in some specialized applications, because those technologies are currently positioned as relatively low-end, low-cost distribution media.

He points out, however, that there are indeed shortfalls in these technologies, such as relatively low performance levels.

Shifting Priorities

To lessen the negative impact of product delays, TeraStor is revamping its launch strategy to move more quickly into higher-capacity drives. In fact, some observers question whether it still makes sense for TeraStor to produce a 10GB version at all. Observing that the enterprise market doesn`t really have a need for the product, they suggest that TeraStor should go directly to the 20GB drive and follow it up as quickly as possible with a 40GB version.

Although Ahola says there`s still "a reasonable-size market" for the 10GB version, the company is indeed taking steps to address these concerns. For example, originally both the 10GB and 20GB NFR drives were to be single-sided, with a dual-surface/dual-head version due with the 40GB product. Now, however, TeraStor plans to begin using the dual-surface technology with the 20GB device and to bring both the single- and double-sided products to market at roughly the same time.

According to Ahola, the primary reason behind the company`s change in strategy is that "the largest demand is clearly for the 20GB product, and we want to put as much focus on this as possible, as well as minimize the differences between the 10GB and 20GB products."

To achieve the increased areal density of the 20GB product, it was originally to incorporate a more advanced version of the NFR recording head than the 10GB drive. Now, however, the two-sided 20GB drive will implement two identical heads per disk. By moving its two-sided technology up to the 20GB product, the company expects to lower its overall risk as well as get its 40GB product to market quicker. Strategic Research`s Peterson sees merit in this approach: "By already working through the dual-side technology, they`ll get a leap forward in the move to 40GB."

Faster than MO, Slower than HDD

As it stands now, NFR technology will still offer competitive, if not superior, performance relative to its immediate competition. TeraStor claims its 10GB drive will have a maximum sustained transfer rate greater than 6MBps, and it now seems likely that the performance of the two-sided 20GB version will be similar, at least initially. Seek times are expected to be less than 18ms.

NFR`s data rate and restore times will be somewhat faster than conventional MO drives. HDDs, however, will still outperform NFR in both data transfer rates and seek times.

Pricing Still Sketchy

The other major factor impacting NFR`s competitive position will be cost, and questions have been raised as to whether TeraStor will have to increase the price of its drives in light of the new release date. Ahola, however, says he does not anticipate a price increase. In fact, he "expects general price erosion in the marketplace and our initial release pricing will accommodate this."

The original target for the 10GB drive is $699 to $799 MSRP, with the 20GB drive priced between $999 and $1,199. Cartridge pricing has not been announced, but it is expected to be competitive with other technologies. NFR cartridges will be manufactured by Imation (Oakdale, MN), Tosoh (Atlanta, GA), and Maxell (Fair Lawn, NJ).

While most market attention has been focused exclusively on TeraStor`s activities, it`s important to keep in mind that Quantum, in addition to being an investor in TeraStor in both cash and intellectual property (head and media technology), has a manufacturing and sales license for the technology. In fact, Quantum has already set up the nucleus of an optical drive division. Ahola says that having a second source will be a big factor in getting NFR broadly accepted. In addition, TeraStor is not prevented from forming additional licensing agreements.

Future Prospects

Although NFR will be initially launched in a 5.25-inch removable format, Ahola says the technology will eventually be available in other form factors as well. "We definitely expect to have 3.5-inch products in the future, and maybe even smaller." He says they are also looking ahead to larger diameter disks for certain applications, as well as the possibility of fixed-disk formats. As for interfaces, TeraStor plans to support Fibre Channel and 1394, as well as SCSI.

Going forward, Ahola believes NFR technology is a strong candidate for consumer applications: "There`s potential for NFR to go beyond traditional computer applications and serve as a bridge between computer and consumer applications."

Ultimately, NFR is still a work in progress, and the next chapter won`t be written until the middle of next year. As observed by Peterson, "Had they been able to come out this time last year with a 20GB product, every jukebox and library manufacturer would have run with them. Now, companies are instead transitioning to other removable technologies such as new tape drives."

Still, Peterson isn`t putting a "deliver-or-bust" deadline on NFR`s introduction. "The window never completely closes. The removable market is huge, but the longer it takes, the greater the challenge."

Says Ahola, "Yes, the technology is late, but the opportunity is still in front of us. Clearly, it`s been harder to bring to market than we initially thought, but we`re past the major hurdles now."

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Chart compares near-field recording with representative?not best-of-breed?examples of MO, phase-change optical, and magnetic disk-drive technologies.

OAW Challenges Superparamagnetic Limit

Quinta Corp., a subsidiary of Seagate Technology, is combining conventional Winchester technology with a number of optical recording techniques to address impending areal-density-limiting factors, including the "superparamagnetic limit," or the point at which signals recorded on a magnetic disk begin to destabilize and degrade. As pointed out by Joseph Davis, Quinta vice president of product development, although the hard-disk-drive (HDD) industry has been consistently increasing areal densities at the rate of about 60% per year, current technology will soon be approaching the theoretical limits imposed by the laws of physics.

With HDD makers currently working at areal densities around 2Gbits to 3Gbits per square inch, there remains disagreement as to the actual level at which the superparamagnetic effect will begin to occur. It is generally believed, however, to be between 20Gbits and 40Gbits per square inch, although IBM recently conducted a technology demonstration at 11Gbits per square inch where evidence of the superparamagnetic effect was already observed. Quinta`s optically-assisted Winchester (OAW) technology is intended to address the superparamagnetic effect, as well as other density-limiting factors.

The primary approach to dealing with the superparamagnetic limit is the use of media composed of amorphous rare-earth transition metals. Such amorphous media are both inherently more magnetically stable than conventional media, as well as particularly well-suited to vertical, more tightly packed recording. According to Davis, amorphous media is capable of supporting nearly 10 times the areal density of conventional magnetic recording media.

The use of amorphous media, however, also poses unique requirements and technological challenges. For example, as with TeraStor`s NFR technology, a laser is needed to pre-heat a precise spot on the media to the Curie point to temporarily increase its susceptibility to magnetization. Unlike NFR, however, one of the new technologies being developed by Quinta is an optical switching module that allows laser energy to be delivered via optical fiber to the recording head. The optical fiber eliminates the need for several additional optical components on the recording head that increase its height and ultimately limit the number of disks that can be stacked in the same space.

Another new technology is a two-stage servo system that uses a tiny micro-machined mirror mounted on the recording head to precisely steer the laser beam. According to Davis, the servo system`s high resonance frequency allows 100,000 tracks per inch.

One of the greatest obstacles ahead for the drive industry, however, is head-to-media flying height. Although the industry is now building drives with sub-microinch flying heights, further improvements will be increasingly difficult to achieve. Quinta`s approach to the problem has thus far been directed at achieving comparable areal densities from greater flying heights. Using "far-field" lenses, its heads can fly some 15 microinches to 20 microinches above the disk surface. While Quinta has proven this technology, according to Davis there`s no question that a near-field system will eventually have to be implemented, requiring that the media-smoothness issues associated with lower flying heights be addressed.

Although aluminum is currently the media substrate of choice in the magnetic storage industry, Quinta uses a plastic substrate that can be preformatted much like CDs and DVDs. The tradeoff is that aluminum media requires a time-consuming and expensive magnetic-writing of the servo pattern, while plastic media is not as flat and smooth as aluminum, which raises tribology (head/disk grinding) issues.

While recognizing some of the benefits of OAW technology, many industry observers are not yet convinced it will be in great demand anytime soon. For example, Jim Porter, president of market research firm Disk/Trend Inc., points to new high-capacity HDD products such as Seagate`s 50GB 3.5" drive and says he expects to see a 100GB product by the end of 1999. "This already gives Seagate an edge in capacity and the Quinta approach may not really be needed," says Porter.

NFR: How It Works

NFR combines elements of optical technology and conventional magnetic recording to produce significant increases in areal density. Basically, NFR uses a laser to pre-heat the surface of the recording media, making it more receptive to the application of a magnetic charge. Unlike "far-field" recording, which typically maintains head-to-media distances of tens of micro-inches, "near-field" systems position the head less than a laser wavelength (six microns) from the disk surface. Positioning the recording head closer to the media provides tighter track and bit densities and faster access times.

In a process called "evanescent coupling," the laser heats a spot on the disk to approximately 300 degrees C in roughly one nanosecond. At this temperature, or Curie point, the molecules within the spot are heated to a finite depth, enabling magnetization. The magnetic write coil records information on the disk by pulsing either a positive or negative field into the spot to create the desired state (1 or 0). Information is written so quickly that it forms a "crescent" recording pattern of overlapping ultra-small spots, and extremely narrow bit cells. In fact, during the read-back process, it is actually the transition region from a positive to a negative charge in a contiguous polarized magnetic field that is detected in each bit cell.

The NFR "flying optical head" contains the magnetic write coil and two optical elements--the solid immersion lens (SIL) and objective lens. The laser itself is remotely located from the flying head. The flying head positions and maintains the head elements within the near-field of focus of the recording surface solely through the aerodynamic forces generated between the head and rotating disk, eliminating the need for a separate focus-servo system, which reduces costs. The SIL tightly focuses the laser beam to produce an ultra-small spot on the recording media.

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John Haystead is a freelance writer in Hollis, NH, and a frequent contributor to InfoStor.

This article was originally published on December 01, 1998