One of the core components of a computer is storage. Between times when the computer is actively processing data, the machine needs a place to put data or it will be lost, and the computer is not of much use if it can’t retrieve work that was done previously. Over the years both the method and the medium for storing data has changed, growing smaller in physical size, while simultaneously storing more data, faster.
The Hard Drive
Hard drives have been around for nearly as long as the computer itself. The first was released in 1953 by IBM, and stored 3.75MB. These hard drives were massive, standing on their own, apart from the rest of the (similarly massive) computer. Over time, the hard drive became smaller, added additional spinning platters and read heads over the platters, and became more precise, allowing more data to be written to the disks. This worked well for saving data to the computer, but not for moving that data.
The Soft Drive
Many technologies over the years have attempted to solve the problem of moving files between computers. The most popular of which were floppy drives, starting in the early 70’s. The first floppy drive was made available to the public by IBM in 1971 as an inexpensive way to ship code updates to customers. Floppy drives began at a standard eight inches diagonal, reducing down to five and a quarter inches, and finally to three and a half inches, commonly storing 1.44MB. Iomega released a proprietary format called a Zip drive in 1994, with an initial capacity of 100MB. Iomega followed Zip drives quickly by Jaz drives in 1995, which could store an almost unheard of one gigabyte. Unfortunately, both the Zip and Jaz drives were plagued with problems resulting in lost data. CD-RW drives, which stored data on rewritable optical disks, were made available in 1997, and gained in popularity until the release of USB flash drives in 2000.
The Flash Drive
The dominance of hard drive storage was challenged in the late 2000’s when internal flash storage became economically feasible. Unlike hard drives, which rely on spinning disks, movable arms, and magnetic heads to write data, flash storage measures the change in voltage in multiple cells. Since there are no mechanical parts in a flash drive, reading and writing to one is orders of magnitude faster than a hard drive. Currently, hard drives are cheaper per gigabyte than flash, but since flash drives are used in mobile devices and computers alike, the gap between the two technologies is closing rapidly.
Like many other aspects of technology, storage space has been getting faster, cheaper, and more powerful, or at least able to store more, over the past sixty years. In the future, there may no longer be a need to differentiate between memory and disk as flash storage becomes faster, and memory becomes less expensive. Leveraging cloud storage options and faster Internet connections, we may soon have nearly infinite storage on every connected device, transparently. Eventually, we will have all our files with us all the time, available almost instantly.