But the MTC tended to react to what the industry wanted, Kryder says, rather than pushing the envelope. So, in 1987, after discussions with the National Science Foundation (NSF), he worked to create an organization that set a technological agenda. In 1990 the MTC became the Data Storage Systems Center (DSSC), one of a handful of NSF-funded engineering research centers. Kryder immediately set an ambitious goal: demonstrate hard drives that could store four gigabits of information in a square inch of disk space. Back then, four billion bits represented an enormous leap. Densities at the time hovered around 100 million bits. But in just four years the DSSC had met the new benchmark, a 40-fold increase.
By 1998, when Kryder joined Seagate to form its advanced research center, the DSSC had set an even loftier target: crowd 100 gigabits into a square inch by the early 21st century. In 2005, just seven years later, Seagate began shipping 110-gigabit drives. Inside of a decade and a half, hard disks had increased their capacity 1,000-fold, a rate that Intel founder Gordon Moore himself has called "flabbergasting."
But now current hard-drive technologies are hitting a new wall. Hard disks typically store bits of information using a tiny head that flies across the surface of the disk and magnetizes billions of discrete areas in horizontal space that represent zero or one, depending on whether they are facing clockwise or counterclockwise. The magnetized areas are becoming so small that it is difficult for them to remain stable.
Kryder and his team are reviving a method called perpendicular recording to fix the problem. It flips the charges north to south, permitting the use of stronger magnetic fields in media that can store smaller bits. Seagate's Pittsburgh lab has already prototyped this approach, which should pack in at least 200 gigabits per square inch within the next two years. Ultimately, Kryder thinks perpendicular drives will record 400 or 500 gigabits within four years. Because that is nothing more than a blink in the world of hard drives, Kryder has already set his next goal: a terabit per square inch, and he has tapped the 100 Ph.D.s at Seagate to work up still more exotic recording systems to make it a reality.
One project tackles a new method called heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR), which uses a burst of heat so the drive's head can more easily magnetize even smaller surfaces. When the disk cools, the magnetic field stabilizes. Beyond that he foresees patterned media recording, which would theoretically allow drives to magnetize 10 times more information.
Surprisingly, his team will not be working on holographic storage, considered by many as the ultimate storage technology. Holography uses all three dimensions to store data, and the goal has been to stuff a terabit into a space the size of a sugar cube. But Kryder predicts that in another six years or so, hard drives will reach the terabit benchmark, at which time they will be smaller and cheaper than holographic systems.
Kryder isn't predicting where all these tiny drives lodged everywhere will lead. The big question for him isn't so much how to crowd more bits on drives, but understanding how those drives will shape the industries of the future.