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Hard disk evolution

Hard disk evolution

Storage is one of the most important components of the IT world, yet it is often taken for granted. The humble hard disk has certainly been one of the most important technological breakthroughs in computing, since it essentially transformed the way a computer booted by means of a pre-stored operating system instead of having to enter floppies or tape. The hard disk wasn’t always gigabytes in size, nor in Solid State Drive (SSD) format and wasn’t always so small. Let’s take a peek back to its modest beginnings and see how it has evolved through to modern day technology.

1950s: IBM 305 RAMAC disk system - The RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) was one of the earliest hard drives that IBM built. It could hold 5Mb of data on 50 24-inch diameter disks. The disk alone weighed more than a ton and was the size of a refrigerator. It was very expensive at $10,000 per megabyte!

1960s: IBM 1301 and 1311 Disk Storage Units - The 1301 replaced the RAMAC in 1961. It used a separate read/write head for each surface, eliminating the fact the head had to pull out and reinsert itself every time it needed to access a different disk. It could hold 28Mb of data and access time improved to 180mb from the 600ms the RAMAC had.

The 1311 was an improvement of the 1301 and was launched in 1962. It was so successful that, several redesigns later, it remained available in the market until 1975. It featured the first removable disk pack, storing 2.6Mb on 6 14-inch platters. Each disk pack weighed only 10 pounds.

1970s: IBM 3340 Direct Access Storage Facility - In 1973, the IBM 3340 saw the introduction of several design innovations still in use today, including low-mass read/write heads and lubricated disks housed in an air-tight enclosure. It had a capacity of 30Mb each spindle for a total of 60Mb

1980s: IBM 3380 Direct Access Storage Device - By the 1980s, IBM reached the gigabyte storage threshold with the 3380. It delivered 2.52Gb of capacity with a data transfer of 3Mb per second. The cost of the drive was between $97,650 and $142,200, depending on the features you selected.

  •  Seagate ST-506 - Also in the 1980s, while IBM continued to develop refrigerator-sized hard disks for mainframe computers, Seagate decided that the hard disk should be small enough to fit inside personal computers. The 5.25 inch device could be used to replace the 5.25 inch floppy drive. Personal computers suddenly had 5Mb of storage space for the price tag of $1500. It eliminated shuffling between disks to run the OS, then to run the application software, and then your data.

1990s: Toshiba Tanba 2.5inch hard drive - The portable computers in the 90s looked more like luggage than nowadays’ laptops. In 1991, the Toshiba Tanba achieved the sleek form that we know about today. In fact, the 2.5 inch hard drives were in use until very recently in laptops - when SSD drives started to replace them. The Tanba had 63Mb of storage.

2000s: Microdrives and SATA harddisks

  • Microdrive:  IBM introduced the 170Mb Microdrive in 1999. The platters were only 1 inch in diameter and could be plugged into the CompactFlash II slot. Hitachi (which had acquired IBMs hard-drive business in 2002) and Seagate began building drives using the same form factor. Apple used an embedded version of this drive in its iPod mini. By 2006, capacities increased to 8Gb but the technology has since been surpassed by SSD.
  • SATA:  The Seagate Barracuda ATA V drive was released in 2003 and started the new SATA connectivity, which used a serial interface. The earlier PATA used a parallel interface. This drive featured up to 2 60Gb platters for a total of 120Gb while costing only $170
  • 10K performance: The Western Digital Raptor drive was also released in 2003 and was developed for enterprise servers. However, the PC gaming enthusiasts quickly latched on to the drive’s high-speed capability. The platters spin at 10,000rpm versus the traditional 7200rpm drives. The Raptor remains one of the highest-performing mechanical drive on the market today. With the SSD replacing mechanical drives, the Raptor’s speedy drive remains popular for data-intensive workloads like video editing and 3D rendering.
  • World’s smallest drive: The Toshiba MK2001MTN was announced in 2006 and was inducted into the Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest hard drive. It packed 4Gb in just 0.85 inch. This drive was used in mobile phones, cameras and digital media players.

2010s: Solid-state drives - Even though SSD drives were manufactured as early as 1976, it took 35 years for the drives to become mainstream. Samsung introduced the 2.5” 32Gb model in 2006 as a replacement for laptop hard drives. However, their price tag was initially steep at $700, until ever-increasing capacity and demand meant decreasing prices which has rendered SSDs universally affordable today.

The future - The current ‘monster’ drive is a 10Tb by Seagate. They are currently testing a 12Tb one based on helium technology, with positive results. Over the next 18 months, Seagate is planning to ship 14 and 16Tb drives. Although the market share for mechanical drives has dropped because of SSDs, traditional drives are still cheaper than SSDs. Also, demand for hard drives has increased in new areas such as surveillance. Seagate’s roadmap of 20Tb drives by the year 2020 is on course thus far. However, this might be impacted by recent SSD developments.

SSDs already have more capacity than hard drives, and this gap will continue to increase. Already 16Tb and 32Tb SSDs exist in a 2.5” form factor. Although much more expensive than hard drives per gigabyte, these will soon go to 64Tb and 128Tb drives. Prices should eventually go down for such drives and that can be expected by 2018 or 2019. At some point, SSDs should eventually take over traditional hard drives. Only price is limiting what SSD can do. Yet the faster they launch bigger drives, the cheaper they become, rending traditional hard drives perched on the edge of oblivion.

From the IBM 305 RAMAC in 1956 (view here) to the 32Tb SSD in 2016 (view here), 60 years are a long time in IT!


Vincent Farrugia is a Technology and Security Manager at Deloitte Malta. For more information, please visit