Over the last 50 years, pressure from users who constantly require more storage for data has pushed research and development to produce higher density storage. In this article, we shall take a look persistent data storage media starting from the arrival of the famous Floppy Disk. The floppy disk was not the first invention that was capable of storing data, but its size and availability gave personal computers a huge boost.

Floppy Disks

8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks

The origin of the floppy disk can be traced to IBM when in 1967 a device for uploading microcode to their System/370 mainframe was required. The result was an 8″ Floppy Disk that had a storage capacity of 256KB. These drives where used in microcomputers of the early 1970s. A popular operating system of the time, the CP/M, was sold on 8″ disks.

By 1976, a 5.25″ version of the floppy disk was produced. The first model could save 90KB of data. Disks were very expensive. I remember purchasing 10 disks for Lm30 (€70) in 1982. It is no wonder that, at the time, many people used to cut another index hole and a read/write slot so that the disk could be used on both sides, doubling the storage to 180KB. Advances in drive production saw the storage capacity of the 5.25″ drive to increase to 1.2MB.

In 1983, a consortium of 23 media companies agreed on the 3.5″ diskette format. Apple used the new drive in their new Macintosh computers and consequently popularised the new media, which could save up to 1.44MB of data.

The next significant development for the personal computer was the hard disk. The first hard disks to appear on the market in the early 80’s, had a capacity of 5MB. Over the years, the storage capacity of hard disks doubled every two to four years. From the 5MB drive of the early 80’s, the highest density drive available today is 4TB, almost a million times increase in capacity.

ST506 Drive (inside view)

An inside view of an early hard disk drive

Although the hard disk has found itself in practically all personal computers, it is now facing challenges from other technologies. Tthe Solid State Disk (SSD) has already found itself in a number of computers. With no moving parts, the SSD is much faster than a normal hard disk. Currently the cost per GB for a SSD is much higher than that for the HD and perhaps this is what is keeping hard disks reigning in data storage for the time being.

One storage media that saw its existance even before the floppy was the tape drive. In fact, before the floppy drive became a standard peripheral in personal computers, a cassette recorder was the device used to store applications and data. However, the tape drives used for professional use where much more sophisticated. As a result of significant technology improvements we’ve seen the storage capacity of a single tape cartridge reach a staggering 3TB with current projections of a 32TB cartridge in the pipeline.

Competing for a place in the data storage arena we also find the Compact Disc (CD) as well as the DVD. Here too technology seems to know no bounds. From the 650MB storage capacity of the CD, the current largest storage capacity is of 200GB on a single Blu-ray 8 layer Disc.

Finally, another important storage device is the flash drive. The first commercially available drive was produced by IBM and had a storage capacity of 8MB. Again, one can see the contrast in storage capacities as eleven years later, the largest storage capacity is 256GB.

The storage media described by no means cover all the devices that have appeared on the market during the last 50 years. The above are only those storage devices that have left a significant mark on the way personal computers are used.

For the future, with regards to data storage media, we should expect more of the same. Given that the theoretical limit of how much data can be stored in a given volume is much more than the current technology allows, we are still a long way from reaching that limit. This means that given the way data density has increased in the past, it would be fair to expect a continuous increase in data storage capacities for the near future.

In the coming months, watch out for more data storage related articles. This is a field with a lot of innovation happening (in both hardware & software) which is helping companies improve their information systems and save money.

Carmelo Romano is a pioneer of personal computing in Malta, having built his first micro-processor based computer in 1978. He is now the founder and managing director of Clever Solutions Ltd, an IT Consultancy firm.