Data Storage Evolution: From punched cards to fast SSDs

Everyone generates and relies on the data, from individuals to big corporations. According to data experts, the world’s data is doubling every two years. The report “Extracting Value from Chaos” sponsored by EMC Corporation said: “The number of “files,” or containers that encapsulate the information in the digital universe, is growing even faster than the information itself as more and more embedded systems pump their bits into the digital cosmos. In the next five years, these files will grow by a factor of 8, while the pool of IT staff available to manage them will grow only slightly”. The growth of the digital world continues to outpace the growth of storage capacity.

The first story in the data world started in the 1890s with a punched card that could hold 112.5 bytes of data. Today (Q3 2021), a single physical drive can handle more than 20 TB of unstructured data. In this article, we will walk you through the data storage evaluation.

Punched cards, the 1890s

Punched cards are paper cards invented in the 1890s and used to punch a hole by hand or the punching machine. The holes are representing data and instructions. In practice, the IT guy would write a program by hand, convert it to series of punched cards that are later loaded into the punch card reader to input data from the card into a computer. After all punch cards are loaded, the computer would execute the code.

They could store 80 columns of data which is equal to 112.5 bytes of data, each column representing one character of a text line. A box of punch cards can hold 2000 cards. They are also known as Hollerith cards or IBM cards.

They were used in data processing applications and control automated machinery. The SAGE air defense system used 62 500 punched cards which is equal to around 5 MB of data. Punch card systems were used by 37.3% of voters in the U.S. 1996 Presidential election. Although many U.S. punch card systems are being replaced by more advanced systems, many voters still used them until 2012.

Magnetic Drum, 1932

42 years later, in 1932, Gustav Tauschek, an Austrian pioneer of Information technology developed numerous improvements for punched card-based calculating machines and invented magnetic drums. A magnetic drum is a metal drum coated with a ferromagnetic recording material. It used to read and write stationary heads that could recognize 0 and 1.

The first mass-produced computer, the IBM 650, had about 8.5 kilobytes of drum memory (later doubled to about 17 kilobytes in the Model 4). Tauschek’s original drum memory had a capacity of about 500 000 bits (62.5 kilobytes).

Magnetic drums were widely used in the 1950s and 1960s as computer memory. At that time, it was common to refer to computers as drum machines. The manufacturing of drums ceased in the 1970s.

Williams-Kilburn Tubes, 1947

Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn, both English inventors, wanted to solve a challenge and offer the first high-speed electronic memory. They did it by inventing Williams-Kilburn Tubes in 1947. It was the first random-access storage device that used a cathode ray tube (as in a TV) to store bits as dots on the screen’s surface. Electrostatic memory tubes could store 512 to 2048 bits of data as dots on the screen.

Some early computers in the United States also used Williams tubes, including the IAS machine (originally designed for Solectron tube memory), the UNIVAC 1103, IBM 701, IBM 702, and the Standards Western Automatic Computer (SWAC). Williams tubes were also used in the Soviet Strela-1 and the Japan TAC (Tokyo Automatic Computer).

Magnetic Tape Drive, 1951

A magnetic tape drive is a storage medium for storing data on magnetic tape. The first time magnetic tape drive was used for recording computer data was in 1951, by UNIVAC I. It was used as the primary input and output device for data and program storage, It is still being used for system backup, data archive, and data exchange. It is packaged in cartridges and cassettes.

A single roll of magnetic tape could hold as much data as 10 000 punch cards (10 000 x 112.6 bytes = 0,001125 Gigabyte).

Magnetic core memory, 1955

Magnetic core memory is random access memory used between 1955 and 1975. Core memory uses rings of hard magnetic material as transformer cores. Each core can store one bit of information. The core doesn’t need the power to retain data, it can be permanently magnetized either clockwise or anti-clockwise. As it was developed, the core shrank from c.2mm to c.0-4mm, the initial speed of 200 kHz was increased to over 1 Mhz. A 32 x 32 core memory plane can store 1024 bits (128 bytes) of data.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD), 1956

We all know hard disks. It is an electro-mechanical device that stores and retrieves data using magnetic storage and rotating platters coated with magnetic material. The first hard disk was introduced by IBM in 1956 with a capacity of 3.75 MB. Today you can buy disks with a capacity of more than 18 TB per single hard disk, smaller, faster, and with a longer lifespan. There are dozens of companies that are producing hard disks today, and some of them are WD, Seagate, Toshiba, Hitachi, and others.

Floppy Disks, 1967

Floppy disks or diskette is a magnetic storage medium for storing data. The first commercial floppy disks were not the one we know as a 1.44”, but 8”. They were first introduced in the late 1960s and then improved by IBM and announced as a Type 1 Diskette or 5.25” in 1973. Today, the most used floppy disks are 3.5”. When it comes to capacity, floppy disks can store data from 80 KB to 2.8 MB. The estimated number of floppy disks use by 1996 was 56 billion. The 3.5“ floppy disks with a capacity of 1.44 MB were widely used in the early 21st.

Compact Disk (CD), 1982

Phillips and Sony joined the strengths and produced the first Digital Audio Compact Disc for storing and playing audio in 1982. The initial CD had a 120 mm diameter and was able to hold 74 minutes of uncompressed stereo audio or about 650 MB of data. That was later extended to 80 minutes and 700 MB of data. The Mini CD had a diameter of 60 to 80 mm and it could store up to 24 minutes of audio or delivering device drivers (still used nowadays).

The format was later adapted to CD-ROM, CD-R (write-once), CD-RW (rewritable media), and a few other formats not very much popular nowadays.

By 2007, 200 billion CDs had been sold worldwide.

A solid-state drive (SSD), 1991

The origins of Solid-State Drives (SSDs) dates from the 1950s. They were later implemented in semiconductor memory for IBM, Amdahl, and Cray supercomputers. The first flash-based SSD was developed in 1991 and it could hold 20 MB of data. Around 2007, the first PCIe-based SSD was announced. Today you can find SSD is a capacity of more than 10 TB.

SSD uses flash memory to store data, it doesn’t have a spinning disk and movable read and write heads as the hard disk and floppy disks. SSDs are faster, than run silently, and are more resistant to physical shock. SSD disk can be connected to a machine using the same data port as HDD, e.g. SATA I, SATA II, and SATA III. There is also a newer standard allowing higher speeds, mSATA, M.2, U.2, NF1 XFMEXPRESS, and EDSFF.

SSD has a limited lifetime number of writes, you can check them by sing vendors official website, e.g., Samsung Magician Software.

Zip drive, 1994

In 1994 Iomega introduced zip drive, removable floppy disk storage with capacity, first 100 MB, 250 MB, and then 750 MB. Comparing to 3.5” / 1.44 MB floppy disks – that was an enormous evolvement. However, the ZIP drives never replaced 3.5”. They weren’t widely used because, at the same time, you could buy a hard disk with 500 MB or more capacity. It was just more convenient to go with hard disks as they were the future at that time.

CF cards, 1994

CF (Compact Flash) are flash memory cards mostly used in portable electronic devices, such as digital cameras for recording audio and video (Canon, Nikon). CF cards can be also used in a PC using a slot adapter or reader. They were based on the parallel bus (167 MBps) using UDMA 7. The maximum capacity at the time they were popular was 8 GB. They were created by SanDisk in 1994. and used until 2008 when a new generation of CF cards was introduced.

Digital Video Disc (DVD), 1995

Developed in 1995 and released in 1996, Digital Video Disc (DVD) was able to hold 4.7 GB of data which is six times more than CDs (700 MB). That wasn’t the end of the DVD’s story. Some companies developed DVDs with multiple layers that could hold even up to 17.08 GB of data (double-sided, double layer). Besides, you could also find DVDs that can handle 8.5 GB (single-sided, double-layer) and 9.4 GB (double-sided, single layer) of data. PlayStation 2 was the first video game console to run DVDs.

USB Flash Drive, 1999

USB was and is one of the most convenient portable storage devices. The first USB was released in 1999 and had followed a 1.0 and 1.1 standard. It could store up to 8 MB of data. Today you can buy a USB flash drive of up to 2 TBs followed by generation 3.1 which is 5 times faster than 2.0. There are dozens of companies producing USB flash drives, and some of the most popular are Kingston, Samsung, SanDisk, and others.

SD Card (Secure Digital), 1999

SD Card is a non-volatile portable memory card developed by the SD Association (SDA) in 1999. The first SD cards created between 1999 and 2002 had a capacity from 32 MB to 64 MB. Later, companies developed different formats and extended capacity.

Blu-ray Optical Disc, 2003

Blu-ray is digital optical disc storage designed to supersede the DVD and store high-definition video (720p and 1080p). It is the same size as CD and DVD, but unlike CD and DVD, the reflection has a blue hue. Blu-ray Optical Disc can hold from 25 GB (single layer) to 128 GB of data (BDXL format).

They are used for distribution features films and distribution of video games for the PlayStation and Xbox.

MicroSD, 2005

Powered by the idea to create and use smaller SD cards, SanDisk created a microSD card in 2005. The capacity was extended up to 128 MB. Motorola’s phone E395 was the first phone that used a microSD card. A few years later, competitors started using them on phones and other mobile devices. Several companies are producing microSD cards such as SanDisk, Samsung, Kingston, and others.  Today you can buy a single microSD card with a capacity of more than 30 GB.

CFast cards, 2008

CFast cards are based on the serial interface (SATA) which means the speed of the CFast cards is equal to the speed of SATA ports (SATA I = 150 MBps, SATA II = 300 MBps, SATA III=600 MBps). The first CFast card of 32 GB was introduced by Pretec at CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Nowadays, you can handle more than 128 GB on a single CFast card. They are widely used on cameras, audio, and video recorders.

 CFexpress cards, 2016

8 years later, the new CF standard based on PCIe 3.0 and NVMe was announced. That resulted in producing a CFexpress card 1.0 in 2017 for speeds up to 2 Gbps. Two years later, in 2019, CFexpress 2.0 was introduced and it was able to handle speeds up to GBps. Today, CFexpress cards are available in capacity of 512 GB and used in audio and video recordings by Sony, Nikon, Canon, and others.

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