From the punched cards of the late nineteenth century to modern cloud storage systems, here are some of the key milestones in the evolution of digital storage.
The global datasphere is staggeringly large, and it continues to double in size approximately every two years. In 2010, the total volume of data in the world was around 2 zettabytes. Today, it is 79, and is expected to surpass 181 zettabytes in 2025. There are now more bytes of data than there are stars in the observable universe!
This rapid proliferation of data has necessitated new storage mediums that are many orders of magnitude for capacious than the solutions of old. In 2002, for example, we entered the true beginning of the digital age, in which the amount of digital data overtook analog storage. Now, around 99% of all data is stored in digital formats.
Here’s an overview of some of the most significant milestones in that journey:
1725 — Punched cards
Punched cards are arguably the oldest form of data storage. They were first used in the early eighteenth century to directly control automated textile looms during the onset of the industrial revolution. 225 years after their invention, they had become a ubiquitous form of data storage for basic computer programs, financial records, and many other use cases.
1932 — Magnetic tapes
Magnetic tape was first developed to store analogue data, such as audio or video recordings. It was first used for recording digital data in 1951 and, by the late 70s, it was one of the most widespread standards for home computers. Magnetic tape is still used to this day for storing huge amounts of data at low cost, although it has been eclipsed by cloud computing.
1954 — Hard drives
Hard drives are an evolution of magnetic tapes in that they still use a magnetic storage medium and are one of the most resilient standards in the industry. The earliest hard drive was the IBM 350, which was invented in 1954 and first shipped in 1957. It was the size of a large fridge and stored 3.75 megabytes. By contrast, today’s hard drives reach capacities of 18 terabytes.
1971 — Floppy disks
Few data storage devices have made such an impact than the floppy disk, which was one of the first removable storage mediums. Floppy disks were a gold standard through the 70s, 80s, and 90s in home and business computing, despite storage capacities of only 1,440 kilobytes. To this day, the floppy disk remains as an metaphor in user interfaces for saving data.
1982 — Compact discs
The first compact disc was manufactured in 1982 to store and play digital audio recordings. It was later used for storing computer data in the form of the CD-ROM. Offering 700 megabytes of storage capacity — equivalent to almost 500 3.5" floppy disks — they radically transformed computing. The latest compact disc is the ultra HD Blu-ray, holding up to 100 gigabytes.
2000 — USB flash drives
One of the reasons that floppy disks remained popular until the late 90s is that they were ideal for regularly writing new data. That all changed in 2000 with the invention of the hot-swappable USB flash drive. The first USB flash drive ever sold had a storage capacity of eight megabytes. Current drives, including memory cards, reach one or even two terabytes.
2006 — Cloud storage
Few data storage technologies have transformed the world of computing than cloud storage, which makes it possible to store practically unlimited amounts of data online in data centers connected to the internet. The first commercially viable cloud storage service was the industry-leading Amazon Web Services (AWS) S3, which now stores over 100 trillion objects of up to 5 terabytes each.
2020 — Decentralized storage
For truly scalable and limitlessly versatile cloud storage, we need a decentralized solution that distributes data into different chunks stored in nodes across a peer-to-peer network. Today’s decentralized solutions are, in many ways, an evolution of distributed file-sharing systems like the torrent network. Decentralization helps mitigate the risks of data breaches, reduces costs, and brings greater ownership and control.
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