The world creates a massive amount of data per day, hence the demand for data storage. Every single minute, people post more than 55,000 photos to Instagram, send over 18 million texts, and view almost 700,000 Tik Tok videos.
That’s a lot of data that needs to be stored somewhere. In order to store all of the data the world generates every single day, it would need to be put on 15,625,000 smartphones with 128 gigabytes of storage.
Before the rise of seemingly limitless cloud storage, how did the world store all of this information? Well, the amount of data was easier to work with, since 90 percent of the world’s data was created within the last two years. But data storage has seen many different iterations over the years to get to where it is now. Here are seven of the most important milestones in the short history of data storage.
1) Punch Cards
The use of punch cards actually predates the creation of computers. They were first created as early as 1725 to help control mechanized looms used in the textile industry. Punched holes in the paper cards represented a sequence of instructions where actions were either on or off, depending on whether a hole was punched or unpunched.
In the late 1800s, Herman Hollerith developed the punch card idea further as a way to store data rather than simply running instructions. His punch card data processing system would be used for the 1890 U.S. Census. Hollerith would continue his work in data to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which would eventually turn into IMB, the massively successful company at the forefront of other data storage inventions mentioned in this article.
A single punch card could hold around 80 characters, which means that a tweet today can hold more information than could be stored on a punch card. They quickly fell out of popularity as a form of data storage once magnetic storage started growing. But they can still be found today in voting machines and standardized tests.
2) Magnetic Tape
The creation of magnetic tape was a game-changer for data storage. It revolutionized the early 1950s when UNIVAC found a way to store data onto its first modern commercial computer using the tape. A single role of magnetic tape would be able to hold as much data as 10,000 punch cards.
Magnetic tape would see many variations over the decades, eventually becoming the main component in cassette tapes and VHS tapes.
While tape has (more or less) fallen by the wayside in the public after the rise of CDs and DVDs, its resiliency and affordability has made it a perfect medium for archival storage.
3) Hard Drives
In 1956, IBM announced its creation of the first hard disk drive (HDD). Instead of only being able to store and retrieve data linearly on magnetic tape, HDDs had the power to access data in whatever order needed. Early HDDs stored the data on rotating disks covered in magnetic paint. Those disks would spin around at almost 1,200 rpm, and a mechanical arm inside the drive would grab the requested information.
The first commercial hard drive was sold commercially in 1956. It was the size of a refrigerator and weighed almost a ton. The kicker? It only held 5 MB of data, with each MB costing around $10,000. That amount of data is about the size of one MP3 music file.
Thankfully, hard drives slowly became smaller, more affordable, and held more storage. The majority of desktop computers and laptops today still use the same basic hard drive technology.
4) Floppy Disks
The creation of the floppy disk helped the personal computing industry take off. The first versions of the floppy disks were around eight inches in length and could only hold about 80 kB of data. These disks earn the nickname “floppy” from the flexible and vulnerable plastic it was made from. It was eventually packaged in durable plastic coating, making them easier to handle for everyday use.
Even though the floppy disk has become obsolete in everyday public use (although some government organizations still use them), its memory lives on as the globally-recognizable “save” icon.
5) Flash drives
Pen drive, thumb drive, memory stick. The widely-adored flash drive goes by many names. Since the USB flash drive uses flash memory rather than magnetized strips, they’re unaffected by electromagnetic interference, making them more resilient to data erasure than its predecessors.
It’s disputed whether IBM or the Israeli company M-Systems invented the flash drive first, as they both filed for an invention patent in 1999. But it became available in stores in late 2000 and quickly became a popular personal storage device. Its impressive portability and low-cost keeps its position as a storage device staple.
6) Cloud storage
Before cloud storage, personal data storage capacities were limited by the size of whatever storage device you could physically obtain. Now, your personal storage limits only depend on the price you’re willing to pay to store your data in the cloud. Whenever you send or store your data through the cloud, you’re actually sending it to a third-party remote database somewhere across the world.
Early versions of cloud storage began to emerge as early as the 1960s with the creation of ARPANET, a network that helped scientists share research among other institutions. Companies like Dropbox, Salesforce, and of course, Google, took cloud sharing to the next level by making it accessible to the public.
Cloud storage has quickly become the preferred method of data storage for individuals, small businesses, and enterprise-level companies.
7) The Next Evolution of Data Storage
By the end of 2020, 44 zettabytes of data will exist in the entire digital universe. While it seems on the public’s end that cloud storage is limitless, it’s not. All that data still has to be physically stored somewhere.
Scientists are hard at work on developing data storage options that can contain the exponentially growing amount of information. The frontrunner in the data storage race seems to be using DNA as data storage. Since only one gram of DNA can hold 215 petabytes of data, it seems like a strong option as data storage faces mounting costs and location limitations. Other futuristic-sounding data storage options scientists are exploring include quantum memory and holograms.
While the next widely-adoptable evolution of data storage is unknown, what’s evident to everyone is that the amount of data in the world will only continue to grow. The technology that’s going to take the place of the cloud is anyone’s game.