File storage is something we tend to take for granted. Text documents auto-save to prevent data loss, cloud storage makes accessing files easy, and online servers feature integrated redundancy to ensure information is backed up in real time. Yet digital data storage hasn’t always been so straightforward, and it looks set to continue evolving in the coming decades.
In the beginning, magnetism was the only viable method of storing information. Magnetic tapes and drums gradually evolved into the 1950s’ hard disk, where spinning platters held a few megabytes of information. By the 1960s, these disks had become portable, though their success was threatened by magnetized spools of plastic housed in rectangular cartridges known as cassettes. It would take two decades for this to become a mainstream method of domestic file storage, during which time the cassette’s greatest rival was also taking shape…
Floppy disk were pioneered by IBM in the early 1970s, rapidly shrinking to a manageable 5.25 inches in size. Capable of storing 110 kilobytes of data, they would become the default method of file storage for commercial computers in tandem with ever-expanding internal hard drives. However, the divide between workplace floppy disks and domestic cassette tapes represented a problem for software manufacturers, who wanted one platform to rule them all.
In 1980, magnetism was finally challenged by optical data storage, as the compact disk made its debut. Although it would evolve into the CD-ROM just four years later, it was 1981’s unveiling of the robust 3.5-inch floppy disk that would transform file storage for a generation. Flip-top boxes of floppy disks became ubiquitous around the world, with their 1.44MB capacity ideal for containing the software and games of the era.
Throughout the Nineties, CD drives were commonly installed into off-the-shelf computers, and their 600-700MB capacities became essential as software programs outgrew floppies. Despite proprietary products like Iomega’s Zip drives, CDs weren’t seriously challenged until the late 1990s when flash memory began to appear in early digital cameras and portable devices. A combination of diminutive size and durability saw flash memory evolve into the Secure Digital format that offered high-speed file transfers without requiring a drive mechanism. Portability was also the driving force behind the rise of solid state data keys, which could hold far more data than a CD despite only occupying a fraction of the space.
It’s been well documented that the cloud is today’s storage method of choice. High-speed broadband connections allow us to keep everything from programs to personal files in a central location that we can access from any device with the appropriate login credentials. Nevertheless, today’s as-a-service cloud hosting is unlikely to represent the endgame for storing information. While online storage will continue to optimize file access on the move, there is great excitement about the potential of graphene – a groundbreaking material whose storage properties belie its wafer-thin appearance. Optical data transfers could see graphene used to host sensitive or personal information offline, while scientists are also experimenting with liquid hard drives that could store 1TB of data in a teaspoon of particle-filled fluid.
There are even rumours that the humble cassette tape could be reborn, storing almost 150GB of information per inch of magnetic spool. This would be of great interest to cloud hosting service providers for their data centers, and could mean that cloud-hosted data is one day stored on space-saving cassettes. Sometimes, the oldest ideas provide the best solutions…