Storage – HDD – Flash

hard-drive-storageStorage, something we do take for granted these days, but what is it? Most people don’t give it a second thought until it’s gone, and that’s where it becomes important. It’s a pretty simple concept really, somewhere to keep something until it’s needed.  Think of it this way, all our documents, our emails, our music, videos, and movies have to be stored somewhere, and they can take up a lot of space! In the early days of computing, information would be stored on huge magnetic tapes, prone to errors and requiring expensive, cumbersome equipment to read data, let alone write it.  Then these magnetic tape readers became smaller, and a function for the end user to record became available. Suddenly anyone could start to archive their information!  Times have certainly changed with the advent of digital technologies, but the concept remains the same. Storage is not infinite, and we all do a great job of using as much as possible!

Removable media paved the way for large-scale storage with miles upon miles of neatly spooled magnetic tape and eventually it was apparent that this system wasn’t the most efficient when finding information was needed quickly. While the capacities were increased, the troubles of magnetic tape never disappeared and soon the need for newer and more reliable technologies quickly developed.  Disks made their appearance relatively early in computing with flexible, floppy disk drives being marketed as the solution to storage forever. The life expectancy wasn’t as long as hoped as manufacturers introduced different sizes and formats leading to a confusing and incompatible marketplace.

The 5.25-inch drives fought the 3.5-inch drives and with no clear winner, the industry standard platform took the lead over the actual format. With IBM bringing the personal computer to the mass market before the rise of the internet, a large capacity media that could be used almost universally was needed.  The compact disk certainly solved this for many years with virtually every software package being available in the well-established format, but the internal storage problem still reigned true.
Once any electronic device is turned off, the data, including the operating system had to be stored somewhere.  As operating systems become bigger and bigger particularly with the increase of the graphical user interfaces, namely Windows, there had to be a long term solution.

Hard drive drives are nothing new but initially they were bulky, noisy and extremely expensive. Typically beyond the realms of most home users, a computer would hold its operating system in read-only memory (ROM) that would be programmed at the factory and never be updated.  This inability to update shortened the lifespan of many off the shelf computer systems causing release after release of the same computer. Atari was famous for this, as were many games console manufacturers.

Once hard disk drives, now commonly abbreviated to HDD’s, had become a necessity did the price become affordable for home users and started to become a standard specification for all new computers.  These allowed users to save quickly documents to their computers as well as install new software. From there it’s been an arms race with every computer vendor offering a bigger and faster HDD inside their computer, and standards becoming evident.

These HDD’s traditionally are mechanical devices, still relying on magnetic methods to read and write data but in a much more precise manner. Usually one or more heads, analogous to the needle on a record player, although without physical contact hover just a few microns above the actual disks, carefully transferring information. The head would move across the disk, directed by a stepper motor, known by all for its clicking noise as it moves around the disk. These HDD units have become quite sophisticated with multiple disks and heads offering huge data capacities. The only problem being that the files we now produce have become huge, especially with the sharp rise in video content, especially high definition and now 4K video content.  Where a 20Gb HDD would seem huge just 20 years ago and be more than adequate for lots of software, nowadays a single computer game can consume well over 20Gb. A large uncompressed 4K video can take up over 50Gb.

The mentality towards storage has also changed significantly with the early computer HDDs being maintained like a tidy office, with files and documents being deleted after use to preserve space.  The trend now has become one of rarely deleting files and waiting for that the storage is full before taking action!

These mechanical spinning hard drives still have their place in the market but are steadily being replaced by solid-state devices.  These, perhaps paradoxically are where we started with data being stored on microchips rather than any mechanical storage devices. The key differences being the ability to read and write to the microchips as well as a massive increase in storage capacity. For now, solid state hard drives or SSD’s remain much more expensive than their mechanical counterparts. But this is changing rapidly with the drives appearing almost everywhere from mobile phones through to televisions and even in car audio systems.

Certainly the solid-state storage devices appear to be the future for large-scale data, but they’re unlikely to remain in their current form for much longer, with new technologies constantly emerging. Research has already shown that it’s possible to record data at an atomic level and should this prove possible on a mass-market scale, the capacity for storage will become virtually infinite.Storage – HDD, Flash

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