« Mr. Disk Drive » Jim Porter Died

He was the voice of the industry for 22 years.
By Jean-Jacques Maleval on 2012.03.07

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jim_porter_died Resident of Mountain View, CA, James N. Porter, founder and president of Disk/Trend, died on March 2 suffering a massive stroke in Monterey, CA where he attended a Dixieland Jazz Festival. [He loved symphonic music and traditional jazz and also enjoyed camping, hiking and photography.]

With Seagate's CEO Al Shugart, I consider him as the most influential people in the history of the worldwide disk drive industry as he was the voice of this sector from the first day and for 22 years.

Disk/Trend was a consulting and market research company mainly on HDDs. It was founded in 1977 and stopped in 1999 as Jim retired and didn't find a buyer. At the same time Ray Freeman, his counterpart for tapes, also retired. Then Jim became member of the Advisory Board of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. He told us that he intends to write a book on hard disk drives but it was not finished. TrendFocus launched by Mark Geenen succeeds to Disk/Trend as the best source of information on HDDs.

I hope Jim's family will find his notes and offer to help for publishing if necessary because I'm sure about the quality of the content as he was part of the HDD industry since the beginning. I remember to have visited a booth at IDEMA where he was showing pictures and an incredible amount of old HDDs and components that he collected.

Some people think that he worked for IBM on the 305A RAMAC, the first HDD (5MB, fifty two-foot diameter disks and the size of a refrigerator). Not true. He never was an employee for IBM, but worked for the company that bought this first unit.

He explained: "After having worked in San Jose for a year in the 1950's, a really quiet little town and a terrible place for a young man to start his business career, I went 50 miles north and worked in the home office of the company that coincidentally bought the world's first disk drive. Crown Zellerbach moved into the first new glass curtain wall high rise built in San Francisco after the second World War. (...) How many in the room today have seen a RAMAC in operation? I mean the original RAMAC."

Prior to starting Disk/Trend, he worked at several companies, including Pabco Paint, Crown Zellerbach, and Cartridge Television, CMX Systems, a CBS-Memorex joint venture. He first became involved with storage products in 1968, when he joined Memorex, serving in a variety of marketing management positions through 1971.

Disk/Trend, in association with Freeman Associates, founded the Diskcon trade show and the DataStorage Conference. He chaired sessions at various trade shows all the way to the end of his life, and participated most recently in the Storage Visions Conference in January 2012.

He was a founder of IDEMA, the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Association, serving as chairman and remaining an active member for many years.

When I began the paper edition of StorageNewsLetter - now only a Web site - in February 1988, all was about disk, tape, optical and floppy drives, and some arrays for mainframes. NetApp didn't exist, EMC was there but its first storage product, the Symmetrix, was launched two years later. I knew nothing about storage and Jim knew everything. I learned a lot from him and he was very respectful with the press.

We published 44 Disk/Trend report's summaries in StorageNewsLetter from 1988 to 1999 on HDDs but also on floppy, optical drives and RAIDs, as well as an exclusive interview (see below) from Jim in January 2000 entitled:" We probably will be in the 150GB per platter range ten years from now." [In 2010 the record was 750GB per disk.]

In this interview he refused to tell us his age. "I'm old enough to get social security as they say in United States", he just said. A longstanding colleague of Porter, Bob Katzive, finally told us, but asked us not to print it.

Jim graduated from Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA and San Jose State University.

Born October 3, 1931 in Sacramento CA, Jim left four children and three grandchildren.

Good bye Jim. You were a smart guy I will never forget.

He is the long interview from Jim Porter, few months after he retired, published on January 2000 in the printed edition of StorageNewsLetter.


For the first issue of the year 2000 we'd planned for some time now to let Jim Porter, president of the market research company Disk/Trend, have the floor. Porter is an institution unto himself: his name has been associated with the disk industry since its very beginnings, and with the eye of an outside consultant, he has consistently offered astute insights into the field.

It was also time to pay homage to Porter, since the storage veteran has finally decided to take a break, dedicating himself for the time being to the history of the storage industry, already more than a third of a century in age. In these columns, Porter recounts for us some of the greatest moments, the not-so-great moments, speaks of those who left their mark on their times, and relates a few anecdotes.

Later, we asked his help in sketsketching out the highlights of the last century, whether in optical and magnetic disks or tape drives.

StorageNewsletter: When you entered the industry as a consultant, did you think that storage would take off the way it has?
Porter: You've got to remember that in those days, the computer of consequence was the IBM System 360 mainframe. The new products just really starting to be significant were mini-computers, and there was a new wave of small computer companies making mini-computers at that time, such as Digital, Wang and Prime, and another 20 companies at least. The industry that we think of today, which is so dominated by PCs and the networks that connect all of this, really didn't start to happen until the beginning of the 80s with the advent of what we now think of as the personal computer, and toward the end of the 80s, when the network attachment of all these devices started to become a big thing, leading into a whole new era of servers, which were used along with these networks. This phenomenon of the PC and the network is what eliminated the monopoly that the mainframe had on the computer industry, and changed the structure of the disk drive industry. If you look at a graph of the long-term progression of disk drives, you would see the beginning of this great curve of increase in total unit shipments starting at the beginning of the 80s, up through last year 145 million disk drives. At the beginning of that curve in the 1980s, the base was just barely off the floor. Now at the same time, the disk drives being shipped during that period bear no resemblance to those being shipped today. In 1977, when I started the Disk/Trend Report, all the disk drives being manufactured were 14-inch disk drives. And that remained true until the first 8-inch disk drive, the Piccolo, was shipped by IBM in 1979. Then in 1980, the first 5.25-inch drive was shipped by Seagate, and so forth. The reason why those smaller diameter drives started to grow in such wide numbers was the growth of the personal computer.

How many HDD manufacturers have there been since the first drive appeared in 1956?
We have counted 262 manufacturers that previously made hard drives, optical drives or floppy drives, but that have since stopped making disk drives, not just announced, but actually produced drives, then dropped out. In the case of hard drives, we can count 14 worldwide still in operation.

Is it still possible today to start up an HDD company?
Well, certain people are doing that. Conner Technology is trying to get started now. Companies such as TeraStor and Siros are starting programs to produce drives using new kinds of technology, combinations of optical technology, near-field recording and other technology elements combined. It's not yet been demonstrated whether or not those companies will be commercially viable, but yes, there are programs to start new companies today, to do products that the company founders hope will be unique enough to establish a place for themselves. The one company that is trying to do something close to what current drive manufacturers are doing is Conner Technology, and of course, they're late, and their original concept of doing 4- and 8-GB desktop hard drives is now washed out, because other companies have done that. The new products now entering the market are 8.6GB per platter, so Conner has had to go back for more funding and will have to redesign their product, because they missed a cycle.

What were the key technologies developed to enhance the hard disk drive?
As you've probably noticed in our technology showcase at Diskcon, we have samples from the very beginning. The first disk drive was produced in 1956, using 24-inch disks, and it was quite different from today's disk drives and technologies, because although it used a head to write and read off the disk surface, it was not today's flying head. The system piped compressed air to the head, and forced the air in to create a separation, which could be controlled by the flow of air, between the head and the disk. It wasn't until the second disk drive introduction, the 1301 in 1962, announced in 1961 and shipped in 1962, it was late, there were many political problems within IBM and it was late. But it was shipped, and it became a very significant product, because it was the first to introduce the use of flying heads on each disk surface - the basic disk architecture which has since been refined continually with each new generation. It was very influential, because within a year or so of that drive's release, the industry then went to 14-inch disk pack drives, using basically the same principles, a flying head on each surface. The technology used was very similar, just refined, and tolerances became smaller and smaller. The people who pioneered in those programs are still around, the young engineering manager on the 1301 was a gentleman named Al Shugart, and the gentleman who took over the 1311 program, the first disk pack file, based on that same technology, Jack Harker, was also at the last Diskcon.

Any other major milestones?
There have been other milestones over time, but the core technologies, creating a magnetic field which can be controlled by the system to write on the disk then read it back was there. From then on it became an evolutionary change. But there have been key evolutionary changes. In the beginning, the head was created by winding wires around a magnet, and eventually, as it became necessary to make the head even smaller, as the tracks became smaller, with more flux reversals per inch, and recording density kept increasing, it became necessary to begin winding very fine wires under microscopes. This went on well into the 1980s. The first of the thin-film heads was not really introduced into a production drive until 1979, with IBM's 3370, and the industry changes from the inductive wire-wound or ferrite heads to the inductive thin-film heads took place quickly within IBM, but for the rest of the industry, it went on through most of the 1980s. Then of course, further refinements became necessary, such as the movement to MR heads, the first of which occurred at the end of the 80s, IBM shipping in the early 90s, and later in this decade, the movement to GMR heads.

And what about the disks?
While that was occurring, the industry found it necessary to go to higher-resolution recording medium, on the disk, so that the original oxide coatings became refined, thinner, with higher coercivities, until finally they had to be replaced in the early 80s with thin-film disks, initially plated, then sputtered, and we've seen many refinements since. And then of course there are two other key areas. One is the electronics, not only to process the signal from the head to the outside world, through the addition of an onboard controller, which wasn't added until the late 80s, when tailor-made semiconductors made that possible. And the rest of the electronics, the microprocessor-end of the drive to provide the intelligence to control all the functions involved. The big pioneer for that was John Squires, when Conner Peripherals was just starting, when he left the old MiniScribe, getting together with Finis Conner. That organization pioneered much of the onboard microprocessor electronics to provide the intelligence to orchestrate all of those functions. But the fourth area was basically the movement toward the in-hub motor. The first drive with an in-hub motor instead of a big motor attached to the drive with a belt, which made small form-factor drives possible today, occurred in the first Maxtor drive in 1983, the 1140.

Do you think that HDDs are any more reliable today than ten years ago?
Oh yes. Of course. The industry has gradually moved away from quoting MTBF, I suspect, but basically, if you went back to the early disk pack drives, for example, the MTBF was only a few thousand hours, and if you consider that there are about 8,000 hours in a year, and we've had gradual improvements over time, so that today you're looking at an average MTBF for a typical desktop drive, you've got an MTBF in a 200,000 to 300,000 hour range, and server drives are generally quoted with a minimum of a million hours MTBF, or roughly 114 years without turning the drive off. So you're dealing with a very reliable product. However, if you think of the way a server drive is used, if you have a hundred drives in a server, and your concern is when will I first have a failure on that server, and the drives are a million hours MTBF, you can divide that number by a hundred, to come up with the average prediction of when you could have a failure.

Has one of your own disk drives ever crashed?
No, they haven't. But there was a very disruptive disk drive failure, going back to the beginning of the Disk/Trend Report, before personal computers were in use. We used a time-sharing service through the telephone line, with a terminal. I used that system for inputting information to develop tables and the other materials we were using in the report. I remember vividly, probably around 1978, one day I'd gathered most of the information from the report, in pencil form on my input sheets, and I spent a solid day inputting that information into the terminal, finishing late at night. When I got up the next morning and was preparing to run the tables, and I went to the terminal and logged on to the time-sharing system, they told me they'd had a disk crash that night.

On which disk?
I checked. It was a Memorex, as it turned out, a Memorex 3350-type disk. I was so angry that I called them to find out which disk had crashed. I was so mad, I waited two or three days before I sat down and put all that information back in the system again. It caused me great inconvenience.

What was the most successful HDD of the past century?
Let's see. The one that created the biggest change in the industry was the Seagate ST506. That was the first 5.25-inch drive. That was a great shock to many people. Many companies immediately started new companies to try to match it, to follow it. It shipped in 1980, 5MB, and it established the industry standard for the ST506 interface, it established the form factor. Many companies immediately tried to copy this, they could see the promise. It established Seagate, then known as Shugart Technologies, as an instant leader in the industry. Another product that was tremendously influential as a server drive was IBM's Spitfire, which first shipped in 2Q1993. It was the first 3.5-inch 1GB server drive, designed by IBM in Rochester. This was tremendously important, going to small-diameter server drives, 1GB on a real 3.5-inch server drives. That was only 9 years ago, and when you think of the changes that have occurred because of that...

The least successful?
I would nominate, after being introduced in 1983 with much fanfare, the CDC Cricket, model 9270-6, 3.5-inch, 6.38MB, an early drive using thin-film heads, which never shipped.

What is the fastest drive available today?
Overall? It could very well be Hitachi's 12,000rpm drive. It certainly has the fastest rpm, the fastest latency. When introduced, and I don't think anyone's improved on it, it had 5ms average seek time. I think one other company has announced 5ms, but they don't have the 12,000rpm, so they don't have the latency. The combination of the latency and seek time gives Hitachi the fastest average access time.

What's the best areal density currently available?
It happens to be a Toshiba 2.5-inch drive, with 11.6Gb per square inch.

What is the limit in magnetic areal density?
You've heard about the superparamagnetic effect, sometimes called a limit. There are different opinions from various physicists involved on whether there is a practical limit. Today, the IBM Almaden research people say that they think that a production disk drive can go up to about 100Gb per square inch, and at the present rate of development, that should occur within about 5 years. It's difficult to be precise. This limit, of course, is when the magnetic domain becomes too small to remain stable at room temperature. And that's very difficult for a human being to measure, so as a result, the technical people argue about what the real limit is. Some people in the past have said 20 or 50. IBM now says production drives can go to about 100. It's probably in that range. And therefore, the famous 60% increase in areal density, which the industry has surpassed in the past few years, will probably come into play in the next 5 to 10 years, but it's unlikely that we'll suddenly go to the edge of the cliff and fall off. It's more likely that the 60% slope of increase will gradually trail off, to much lower percentages, and the increase will go on for a long time, just at lower percentage rates. This will depend, too, on whether companies such as TeraStor and Siros, that are working on using magnetic materials which are affected by temperature, as with an optical device, are capable of achieving production with cost effective devices within the next five years. It may become academic, if the existing room temperature magnetic recording is replaced with the higher density heat-sensitive recording materials.

What will the hard disk drive be like ten years from now? What about its specs?
Obviously, you can only make a wild guesstimate on that. It's clear that within 3 or 4 years, the industry will start producing 3.5-inch drives with 40GB per platter, and they will be in the range of the 30-35Gb per square inch. Ten years from now, I would guess, if we're talking about conventional magnetic recording, I would suggest we probably will be in the 90-100Gb per square inch range, so 150GB per platter.

Do you see HDDs being used in other applications besides storage in the future? Where?
It's obvious that there will be many applications for storage, and that storage will make many other applications possible. Certainly, the consumer electronics applications around television will be major. They're very sensitive to the price and capacity of the drives. When we can offer 50 to 100GB per 3.5-inch disk, that will translate into interesting consumer products. The most important technical specification for consumer products is price, consistent with the product having the capacity to do the things you want, in this case, to record and play back large amounts of video data cost-effectively. That's just one non-computer application that will become quite large, eventually. And it will use drives that are basically the same as the desktop PC market, except for the electronics, which will be changed to make the signal more appropriate to the video market. Other than that, the mechanics of the drive, the recording density and so forth, heads, disks, motor and so forth, will all be the same as with the desktops. Therefore, the video markets are getting a free ride based on what's already being done with the desktop. The other important thing is that small diameter disks, most notably led by IBM with the Microdrive, and other companies that eventually do 1-inch or thereabouts, will make it possible to introduce very significant improvements such as voice recognition on vest pocket computers, you'll be able to talk to the computer, instead of poking it with a pen point. I think that these will complete major changes in the market. You may have noticed that the users of notebook computers hate to carry them around because of the weight. They carry them around because they're workaholics, they want to use them, but they hate it because of the weight. If you could perform all of those same functions on a product the size of a palm computer by merely holding it up and talking to it, to do all of your word processing, all of your e-mail, the business traveler would switch very quickly. The thing that will make it possible will be the storage, because a voice-recognition program today takes up somewhere in the range of 200 to 250MB of capacity, and the palm pilots of the moment have from 1 to 4MB of semiconductor memory, and they can't afford more. So that drives such as IBM's Microdrive and others that will come will make all of that possible.

Who is the best CEO of any HDD company?
I'm thinking about Al
[Shugart], you see, but there are many ways to measure the best CEO. Are we talking about the best leader, the one more people were more willing to follow, to create more change, or the best manager of a company, in terms of management skills. The one who's created the most impact over time is clearly Al. Was Al that good a manager, the best CEO in those terms? Not always.

The worst?
I don't want to try to do that.
Maybe Q.T. Wiles, the last CEO of MiniScribe, or Tom Mitchell, CEO of JTS...
I'll tell you privately, maybe.
[N.B. He did, and we weren't far off the mark. -Ed.]

The best engineer?
The engineer who created the most change because of what he did was John Squires. I don't know if he was the best, but he certainly had some very innovative ideas, and created incredible change in the ways that desktop drives were designed. On the other hand, if you go back to the early days of what it took to work with almost nothing in this area, and create a product, the most honored person who created more new things in the first half of the industry's history, is probably Jack Harker of IBM. As I said, he's still alive. He was very important on the 1301 and 1311, and many other key products over the years. In the modern era, I would have to nominate John Squires.

The best in sales and marketing?
It's Finis

The best in operations?
Mike Cannon

What's your opinion on the famous industry trio, Conner, Mitchell and Shugart?
I wouldn't necessarily call them a trio. If you look at the founders of Seagate Technology, previously Shugart Technology, which was later acquired by Xerox, who considered that they bought the name, but the drive that Al and Finis started, the ST506 bears the name Shugart Technology. After they started shipping, Xerox told Shugart he couldn't use his name anymore. So Finis and Al looked for a name that would have the same number of letters beginning with an "S." The major founders there were Al and Finis. But the other very significant founders were Doug Mann, and Mitchell, Syed Iftikar, and Steve Kaczeus. The designers on the original ST506 were Syed and Steve. So I'd challenge whether these three can be cited without taking into account Doug, who was the CTO. These three gentlemen you mentioned found it difficult sometimes to work together, because they all had very strong personalities.

It seems at times it was more of a battle between those people than between the companies...
That's the press' version, anyway.

If you had to put your own money in one HDD company's stock, which one would it be?
Well, at the DataStorage Conference last September, we had an executive round table, which Ray Freeman and I jointly chaired. Included on that panel were various industry leaders, and we invited Al. After a very detailed discussion of the industry's structure and so forth, that was the last question I asked. And Al had the last answer. He said, "
I wouldn't put a damn penny into an HDD company today." So what can I say? I think if you had a company today with an exceptionally new approach, with exceptionally good skills in its management group, you might consider that. The companies that are trying to do the new advanced technology products, such as TeraStor, have gone through a couple round of financing, and TeraStor has just gotten $30 million more from the financial community, because they feel they're very close to being ready to ship. Siros also has had substantial investments. By the way, there are some people on their board of directors who understand the industry quite well. One member of their board is a gentleman called... Al Shugart. So they've been able to get substantial investments. They're licensed now to work with the technology with Lucent. Bell Laboratories had been working on advanced near-field recording techniques, etc. for optical, and that technology's been licensed to Siros. And they're also working on what they hope will be the next generation advanced technology product. So these companies are indeed receiving investment, and they are indeed planning a disk drive. But it has to be new and different to get that kind of investment today.

What's the best trade show to visit, to learn about storage?
Well, it depends on what part of the industry you're concerned with. If you're concerned with the technology that goes into the disk drive, the best show is obviously Diskcon U.S.A. If you're concerned about the disk drives being offered, that's all over the world. That's CeBIT, Comdex, a variety of other shows. If you're concerned about storage subsystems, that's another set of shows altogether, Networld Interop, NAB, because video's a big part of it, and again, CeBIT. So you have to decide whether you're talking about the components going into the drive, the completed drive, or systems using the drive, because each is a different kind of market.

What is the funniest anecdote you have about the industry?
I remember having a long lunch with Doug Mann, who was the co-founder and CTO of Seagate, and we were having this lunch in a restaurant on a golf course near Seagate's headquarters, probably around 1986, and I'd told Doug that IBM has a lot of parts on order for very small disk drives, and that they'd probably move from the 5.25-inch drives they're using at this time on PCs by early next year, going to 3.25-inch drives. And when they do that, I told him, it will change the industry, and you'd better be ready. Well, Doug and I argued for an hour, because he didn't like any drive smaller than 5.25-inch, he didn't want to do that. So after arguing for an hour, I'll always remember Doug's final words. "IBM is too smart to go to 3.5-inch drives. This problem is going to go away and stop bothering me." That's exactly what Doug said. And of course IBM did introduce the 3.5-inch drive.

As a consultant, you have to bet on the future. What was your best prediction?
We've tried to avoid predicting gross new events in the industry. We've always limited the forecast period on our reports to only 3 years, in recognition of the fact that it's an evolutionary industry, and we only want to take on the next 3 years.

Well, you spoke about the 3.5-inch drive, for instance.
Okay, we did predict that the growth of the 3.5-inch during those years would be significant, but I don't think that we were unique in that.

And your worst forecast?
Well, we weren't as bad as some of our competitors, but more people thought that sales for the 1.8-inch drive would be more significant than eventually happened. One of our competitors, whom I won't cite, predicted that annual sales of 1.8-inch drives would be in excess of 8 million per year, and it never got above a few hundred thousand.

Do you see a future for the removable cartridge disk drive?
Yes, both removable floppy drives and removable hard disk drives.

Let's talk about removable hard disk drives.
As you know, we lost SyQuest last year, and Avatar, as well as others before that. The difficulty has been that they are addressing a specialized market, and it's a good specialized market for those that recognize that market is only a limited number of drives per year for specialized area of usage. After Syed Iftikar was forced out of SyQuest, the turnaround management imagined a much larger market than actually existed. They invested a huge amount of money on full-page ads in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, etc. and they outspent, in expenditures, the nature of the market in a very big way, and so they blew it. Merely by spending at a much higher level than the market justified, and eventually they had to close up.

You have also been following the floppy disk market. What format will replace the 1.44MB floppy diskette?

Probably nothing in the near future, despite whatever the evangelists for the other competitive products are telling you, and the reason is very straightforward. If you look at the work that's being done on personal computers, there are no exact measurements, but my personal guess would be that at least 80% of the work being done on PCs is word processing. And I don't know about you, but I can keystroke all week, and not fill one 1.44 MB floppy. So therefore, it becomes a very appropriate medium for those people doing word processing to move work between home and office, or to make an occasional copy for reference, or what have you. And since the drives are now down to an average price in the $10 range, to the OEM buyer, I don't think they're going to go away. In other words, they're very cost effective, and they're very appropriate for a large amount of the work that's being done on the PC. So I think they're going to be here for a long time.

Can you get rich as a consultant?
No. And that was never my objective.

As a consultant, I suppose you often sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)?
I do occasionally, but most of the companies don't bother asking for them when they reveal information. We've always had a firm policy of not revealing anything publicly until it's disclosed by one of the companies providing it.

How is it then possible to inform your customers about what's happening among the various competition?
We're very careful about confidential information from any one of the companies. We're able to sit down with each of the major companies, and carry on detailed conversations about how they see the company in the future, their options, etc. and they know that we'll never hint to anyone outside what their internal thinking is. We will only discuss groups of company, as an industry. For 23 years, we've had a perfect reputation for not revealing any confidential information. Compared to our competitors, that's one of the reasons we've been so successful, because we've had very good cooperation from all those companies. They know that we go to see them personally, we don't sit in our offices. Some of our competitors try to do this by remote control, but it can't be done.

How many miles have you traveled during your career?
There used to be more companies that we had to see in previous years. At times, it was probably close to 50 or 60 thousand miles per year.

How many countries have you visited?
Fortunately, those countries that are advanced enough to make disk drives are also advanced enough to have good food and good beer and wine, typically. It's not like being in the oil industry, where you're forced to visit some pretty remote places. So what are we saying, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the UK, including Scotland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, etc.

How much have you spent on the phone?
We have been spending between $500 and $1,400 on phone and fax per month.

How many emails do you get per day?
Typically, 20 to 40.

How long do you stay on the computer, on the Web, per day?
I suppose I spend about 30 to 40 minutes per day checking information on the Web.

For a number of years now, we've been waiting for a book by Jim Porter. Are you working on one yet?
Now that I have stopped publishing reports, I'll finally have the time to do the research that I need to do. I'll be gathering information on the first Japanese disk drives, the first European disk drives, the first American drives, in addition to IBM's, which is well documented. It will probably take me a year to gather enough information, and sometime within the next two years, I'll have probably two books finished.

Have you thought of a title?
I don't want to give you the title yet. It might annoy a few people.