Lessons From A Hard Drive Factory

Lessons From A Hard Drive Factory

I’m a sucker for a good factory tour. I recently had the opportunity to visit two of Seagate’s facilities in Singapore. Woodlands is a plant where Seagate manufactures hard drives while Shugart, named for the company’s founder, was focused on testing drives. I thought I knew a bit about storage but those tours were an eye-opener. Here’s what I learned.

Hard drives are made from clear glass disks or aluminium

Depending on the drive you buy, those spinning platters may have started their life as either a clear piece of glass media or an aluminium disk. The actual material our valuable ones and zeroes are written on are added through a process called sputtering.

Creating a single platter is a seven step process

Once that media is delivered to the factory it goes through seven steps before packing. These are cleaning, sputtering, lubrication, buffing and wiping, UV treatment, testing and multi-disk writing.

All of that happens on a highly automated production line which looks more like a laboratory than a factory. Advanced filtering systems and other environmental controls ensure no contaminants infiltrate the factory.

Testing is a really big deal

Whenever Seagate makes a new type of drive it goes through a rigourous battery of tests. Of course, that’s hardly a surprise. But if they make a firmware change on an existing model, that model undergoes the full battery of tests as if it’s a new device.

In my IT career, we did regression testing and tested changes made to software but I’ve never tested an entire product as if it’s brand new when a relatively minor change was made.

Among the tests I got to see were atmospheric and temperature tests to ensure drives work in hot and cold environments as well at different altitude, audio testing to ensure the drives aren’t too loud, emissions tests to ensure they do not emit RF and other radiation, drop tests at 1000G on six different axes, and read/write tests while exposed to every different mobile phone carrier frequency.

Seagate makes custom drives

For most of us, buying a hard drive is a matter of locating a reseller who sells a drive that meets our needs and negotiating a deal. But if you need a specific drive, in a non-standard form factor or to meet a very particular need, this can be done.

These are the sorts of devices cloud service providers use in their data centres where off-the-shelf components don’t meet their needs.

What was the big lesson for me out of this? There’s an awful lot I take for granted when I write some data to my hard drive.