7 of the Most Important Milestones in Data Storage

Data storage has come a long way since the dawn of the 20th Century.
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Created: 7/9/2019
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Cloud storage services, like Dropbox, are but the latest in a long line of incremental developments in data storage throughout time. From the early days of punch cards, how we store, read-write, and transfer data has changed beyond all recognition to only 100 years ago.

What the future of data storage will entail is anyone's guess but there are certainly some interesting proposals.

In the following article, we'll explore what is meant by terms like "Cloud Storage," how big one Terabyte is, and highlight some of the major milestones in data storage history.

We will also try to put a TB into perspective by estimating how many of each milestone would be required to provide the same amount of data storage (where applicable).


What are some historical data storage achievements throughout history?

Here are some of the major milestones in data storage throughout time. You won't be surprised to hear that this is far from exhaustive.

1. Punch cards and tape helped kick the whole thing off

data storage punch cards
Mid-20th Century punch card. Source: Pete Birkinshaw/Wikimedia Commons

Punch cards and tape are one of the very first "data" storage methods in computer history. Forms of this technology have been in use since the early beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and were commonly employed in the textile industry.

They were originally used for controlling mechanized looms but were adopted in the 20th Century for use in early computers. For computers, punch tape and cards could be used as a basic method of data input as well as data output.

Each row on the cards and/or tape represented a single character. Punch cards and tape were very common throughout much of the 20th Century until about the mid-1970s.

Interestingly enough, they were also a vital component of Allied Forces' Bletchley Park project during the Second World War for storing decrypted German messages.

Punch cards, on average, could "store" 80 characters each. That's about 80 bytes per card or 1.26 x 1010 cards (give or take).

They are, of course, today widely considered obsolete.

2. IBM’s Winchester hard-drive disk architecture was a "big bang" moment

The IBM 3340, code-named "Winchester," is widely considered to be something of a "Big Bang" moment in data storage. It was first introduced in the early-1970s and used removable data modules with each including a head and arm assembly.

"Winchester" had an access time of 25 milliseconds and data transfer rates of 885 kB/s. It also came in two sizes including a 35-megabyte capacity version and 70-megabyte version.

To get 1 TB of storage you would need 1,000,000 megabytes, so with the larger 70-megabyte storage, you'd need 14,286 "Winchester" units.

It would prove highly successful and was finally withdrawn in the mid-1980s. While "Winchester" was the product of earlier work on hard-drives (like RAMAC), many in the industry consider this a watershed moment in data storage development.

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3. Magnetic Tape and Cassettes changed everything

data storage cassette
Source: Pexels

The advent of Magnetic Tape was revolutionary in the early-1950s. One of the first was called UNISERVO, which was the main I/O device for the UNIVAC 1 computer and the first commercially sold computer.

UNISERVO had a transfer rate of 7,200 characters per second and data was stored in 365 meters long tape contained in a metal case.

This technology would eventually mature into one of the most iconic data storage systems of all time - compact cassettes. These would become incredibly popular storage devices and were very common between the 1970s and 1990s.

They had many applications from computer storage to the music and gaming industries.

To get 1 TB storage using cassette tapes you'd need (based on C64 format and 2MB storage) around 500,000 cassettes.  The calculation here is thanks to BuffaloX on ubuntuforums.

4. The Floppy Disk was another "watershed moment"

data storage floppy disk
Source: Pexels

The development of the Floppy Disk was a huge moment in data storage. It almost single-handedly drove the consumption for the Personal Computing (PC) industry. This, in turn, pushed manufacturers to develop ever bigger and better hard drives.

PCs also indirectly promoted the development of network-attached storage that would eventually lead to things like NAS, SAN, and RAID (not to mention the internet).

This technology was developed by IBM and came into common use around the mid-1970s. It proved so successful that they were still a common sight well into the 1990s.

The first versions were 8-inches (203 mm) in size and had about 80 kB of data storage capacity. The later versions of the Floppy Disks were reduced in size to 5.25-inch (133 mm) and 3.5-inch (90 mm) formats and able to increase storage to over a MB a piece.

Using later formats with about 1 MB of storage, you'd need 1,000,000 floppy disks for 1 TB.

5. Fibre Channel, SAS, and SATA changed everything

data storage fibre channel
Fibre Channel director with SFP+ module. Source: Scottkipp/Wikimedia Commons

Fibre Channel, SAS, and SATA were other revolutionary developments in data storage and transfer. Fibre Channel, in particular, evolved from the development of SCSI interfaces that developed into serial links allowing for better data transfer across the industry.

According to sites like Wikipedia, Fibre Channels are "a high-speed data transfer protocol (commonly running at 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 128 gigabits per second rates) providing in-order, lossless delivery of raw block data, primarily used to connect computer data storage to servers."

Today it is widely used in storage area networks (SAN) and other commercial data centers.

To transfer 1 TB of data using Fibre Channel, it would take (at 128 GB/s) about 7.8 seconds.

6. Solid-State Drives are all the rage

Solid-State Drives, or SSD, literally changed the data storage industry forever. By the mid-2000s companies like SanDisk, Samsung, and etc. had developed market flash SSDs that were drop-in replacements for older hard-drives.

SSDs were faster and smaller than their contemporaries. They are the de facto standard today for many portable devices and computers. Compared to older hard-drives, SSDs provide better storage capacity, better performance, and they are more energy-efficient and are more appropriate for miniaturization.

Many devices nowadays have enormous storage capacities. Sizes like 1 TB + a piece are becoming commonplace today.

7. Cloud Storage and the future

data storage dropbox
Source: Dropbox

Cloud Storage (more on this later) has been one of the most significant developments in data storage in computing history. By changing traditional thinking of storing data locally, it is taking the data storage industry by storm.

It is actually a lot older than you might think. Some early versions were developed in the early 1980s, by Compuserve, and may even have its origin in the 1960s with tech like ARPANET.

Hosting companies, like Dropbox, have cashed in on this development and today have millions of users the world over.

Tech experts are confident that it will become one of, if not the main method of data storage in the future.

What is Cloud Storage?

According to Techopedia, "cloud storage is a cloud computing model in which data is stored on remote servers accessed from the internet or "cloud." It is maintained, operated, and managed by a cloud storage service provider on storage servers that are built on virtualization techniques. Cloud storage is also known as utility storage – a term subject to differentiation based on actual implementation and service delivery."

Storage of data usually takes the form of physical storage over multiple servers which are often in multiple locations around the world. Access to this form of storage is usually owned and managed by a hosting company (like Dropbox).

These providers are responsible for maintaining and running said servers. They are also responsible for access to and security of clients' data. Users effectively rent some of the hosting companies’ data storage capacity and require some form of internet access and application programming interface to access, store, and retrieve their data.

How much is 1 TB?

How much is 1 TB? Basically a lot.

1 TB of data is 1,000,000,000,000 bytes or 1012 bytes or 1000 gigabytes. It is, in this sense, a large multiple of the basic unit "byte" used for quantifying digital information.

Its prefix, Tera, represents the 4th power of 1000 and means 10 to the power of 12 in the International System of Units. It is, therefore 1 Trillion bytes.

To put that into perspective, it would be about 8 smartphones each with a 128 GB capacity.

That amount of memory would be enough to store (courtesy of Dropbox):

  • 250,000 photos taken with a 12MP camera;
  • 250 films or 500 hours of HD video; or
  • 6.5 million document pages, commonly stored as Office files, PDFs and presentations. It’s also equal to 1,300 physical filing cabinets of paper!
  • One of the first Terabyte drives to ever be produced was by Hitachi in 2007.

This is a sponsored post for Dropbox. All opinions are our own. Dropbox is not affiliated with nor endorses any other products or services mentioned.

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