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by Mike Zazaian September 11, 2006 - 8:55am, 4 Comments

The Past (And Future) of Hard Drives

Hard drives have improved about 65 millions times over since RAMAC, the first hard drive, was introduced fifty years ago. But how much will they improve over the next 50?

When the first hard drive was introduced in 1956 it was a 1-ton behemoth. Dubbed RAMAC, or Random Access Method of Accounting and Control, the first such drive was installed at a newspaper publishing firm in San Francisco named Crown Zellerbach, which they purchased because of computer card stock deliveries to IBM. The storage prototype consisted of 50 platters, each 24-inches in diameter. These platters stored a whopping 5 megabytes of data, making it about 65 million times less packed with data than modern hard drives.

A RAMAC Hard DriveToday’s consumer hard drives peak out at 750 gigabytes, with the 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabyte) milestone just on the horizon. And not only have they gotten bigger, but they’re considerably more pervasive, than, er, one. According to a study called How Much Information? at the University of California, Berkeley, approximately 1.5 billion hard drives were shippped between 1992 and 2003, containing a total of 41,400 exabytes, a size large enough to store every word spoken by mankind from the beginning of language to present day. This is more data than is contained by all of the paper in existence, making Hard Drives the most prolific form of information storage in the world.

But even as far as hard drives have come in the past 50 years, how much room is there for them to grow? Mark Kryder, chief technical officer of hard drive giant Seagate, believes ‘We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’

The hard drive has advanced about 65 million times in areal density since the RAMAC, and we’re still, in my estimation, three orders of magnitude from any truly fundamental limits.

As flash media continues to bare its teeth and flex its muscle at the storage market, hard drive developers must gain some momentum in the progress of data storage. According to drive maker Hitachi, new technologies such as Perpendicular Recording, a method by which data is stacked on top of each other, should ensure that hard drives are capable of storing between 500 megabits and 1 terabit per square inch by the year 2010. More efficient methods of actually printing the data to the hard drive platters are also being researched.

And while it remains to be seen whether hard drives will remain the data storage kings forever, they certainly have some gambits in store for the expanding PC market over the next decade. More cryptic technologies that utilize magnetic vortices, essentially small, magnetic tornadoes, offer further expansion of hard drive capabilities even past the point at which perpendicular recording peaks. Even with Flash memory in its rear-view mirror, Seagate’s Kryder remains optimistic about the future of hard drives:

Mother Nature has provided us with a technology that is scalable to very, very high densities, so you just keep working at the problem with enough engineers, and you make progress on it steadily.

[via Cnet]