Pantelis Alexopoulos understands he isn’t in the sexiest part of the tech business. The 64-year-old engineer from Greece has spent his career designing hard disk drives—storage devices that are crucial to computing, but don’t attract lines of sleep-deprived fans at five in the morning. “The world does not respect drives,” says Alexopoulos, a Cornell University-trained veteran of IBM, HGST, and TDK Fujitsu who has been executive director of Singapore’s Data Storage Institute since 2010. “The customer doesn’t know it’s a marvel of engineering.” A drive, he says, “is more sophisticated than a Boeing 747.”
Suddenly, though, people like Alexopoulos are looking, if not sexy, at least datable. Standard drives for most laptops are 9.5 mm thick, far too bulky for tablets and the new breed of thin, light laptops known as ultrabooks. Companies have tried to cope by using more expensive components or selling machines without much storage capacity. For instance, Apple gets around the problem for the MacBook Air by using flash-memory-based solid state drives, which are made from silicon and have no moving mechanical parts. SSDs work for a niche, high-end product like the Air but are too expensive for machines targeting the mass market. PC makers producing ultrabooks are using 7.5 mm disk drives—slimmer than 9.5 mm but not as slim as they would like.
Singapore has long been a hub for the disk-drive business, and the city-state’s government-backed research center is at the forefront of efforts to devise a thinner drive. Shortly after he joined DSI, Alexopolous began developing a drive that was just over half the thickness of the industry standard. Work is almost done, with DSI planning to unveil it in November. The 5 mm hybrid drive, with an initial capacity of 500 gigabytes, will have a hard disk drive to handle heavy data needs and flash memory for faster performance.
With only 250 researchers, DSI is much smaller than Western Digital, the U.S. company that’s working on its own 5 mm drive. Alexopoulos’s colleagues credit him with pushing them to become more innovative. He’s a detail-loving manager, says Jack Tsai, a division manager of the material science lab who worked under him at TDK. “He is in the trenches, working with the engineers to come up with solutions.”
Alexopoulos has been intimately involved in every aspect of the process, because slimming down the drive requires rethinking everything from its motor to the assembly. “The whole thing is really an amazingly interesting and beautiful engineering challenge,” he says. Alexopoulos doesn’t expect people to appreciate the sophistication of disk drives. He concedes that storage’s low profile is largely the fault of himself and his colleagues. There was never a big-name thinker comparable to the semiconductor industry’s Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel who made famous his eponymous law that chip speed doubles about every two years. Or, as Alexopoulos puts it, “Moore’s Law, blah blah.” In the storage business, he says, “we were too busy to make laws.”