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The Brief History of Computer Storage Units & How We Got Here

August 18, 2017

Of all the world-changing evolutions in computing technologies over the past few decades, data storage technology has experienced some of the biggest breakthroughs. Those technological advances, vital to the way that people worldwide both conduct business and carry on in their personal lives, don’t tend to grab headlines the way bold innovations in communications technology such as the emergence of the mobile workforce or the advent of social media do.

But advances in data storage technology have underpinned it all, dramatically increasing the potential uses of computers. By looking at the history of computer storage units, we can see how far things have come in a relatively short period of time, and better understand what the future of data storage may hold.

The Prehistory of Modern Computer Data Storage

It seems quaint, but the earliest ancestors of today’s hyper-fast SSDs and multi-terabyte HDDs can be found in the punch card. In the first half of the 20th century, pieces of paper with holes punched in them collected and stored data in the most rudimentary sense. Some, in fact, captured data in binary, the language of zeros and ones that still acts as the foundation of computing. In the mid-20th century, many computers—those being mainframes that could take up an entire wall—shifted to using magnetic tape drives, which at the time were able to store less than a megabyte of data.

Floppy Drives and Hard Drives: The Earliest Days of Home Data Storage

In the earliest days of personal computing, HDDs were not widely used. First the 8-inch floppy disk in the 1970s, then the 5.25-inch floppy and later the 3.5-inch floppy disk throughout most of the 1980s, were the primary ways that data was stored among home computer users. When hard drives were introduced to home computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the amount of data they were able to store was generally less than 100 MB, which seemed quite considerable to users of the day.

The HDD Era and Going Beyond the Gigabyte

The first gigabyte-capacity HDD was actually created in 1980. However, it was refrigerator-sized and carried a $40,000 price tag. A decade and a half later in the mid-1990s, an average HDD for home computer use had 1 GB of storage capacity. In 1997, a 3-gigabyte drive (0.3 percent of a terabyte) was available for around $399. A decade later, the first terabyte hard drive for a desktop was released to great fanfare at the same price. Since then, storage capacities have kept increasing and prices have kept dropping.

SSDs and the Cloud

Though SSD technology has existed for decades, it was largely known only to researchers. In the mid-to-late 2000s, due in part to the relative advantages over HDDs in terms of speed and durability, the SSD market exploded alongside a boom in laptop and netbook use.

Remote data storage also became a go-to solution for businesses and individuals. The use of public, private and hybrid cloud storage solutions for backups now has users storing more data in more places than ever before.

The Future of Data Storage

In just the past few months, rapid technological innovations have been making data storage solutions even faster, cheaper and more compact. New SSD controller technology is allowing SSDs to reach their full speed potential, and 3D NAND flash memory stands to drastically increase SSD drive capacity. HDDs, too, continue to get bigger and faster. If the last 20 years is any indication, we are likely to soon see data storage technology that will make today’s most high-end hardware seem ancient and inadequate.

What innovations do you see advancing the world of data storage in the next decade?