A Brief History of External Storage Devices – From the Floppy Disk to the Hard Drive

From the very beginning of the personal computer (PC) people have needed external storage. In the following material we will discuss the beginning of the external storage (floppy disks) to the current technologies. In the beginning of the PC there were only floppy disk drives that were 5 1/4″ wide. The operating system and applications needed to be loaded into the floppy drives just to run the computer in the early 1980’s. The computer hard disk allowed the applications to be loaded into the computer without needing the floppy drive. During this timeframe people could store their information on these floppy disks and keep it offline to be reloaded into the computer later.

The original 5 1/4″ floppies held 160KB (kilobytes) of data but quickly improved to 360KB. To put this into perspective 1KB is about half a page of text. The floppy drives were made from a vinyl like a record in that you had tracks where the data was stored. The 5 1/4″ drive topped out at 1.2MB (megabytes) but were still contained in the fragile floppy disk that was prone to environmental contamination. The next format to come out were 3 1/2″ floppies. These not only were smaller but they had a plastic case protecting them. Though they began holding only 720KB of data, they were soon able to hold 1.44MB of data and were far easier to store in cases and off site. By the late 1980s the 5 1/4″ floppy disks were replaced by the 3 1/2″ format.

During the same timeframe in the 1980’s the internal hard disk drive was becoming a standard for the PC as well. There are distinct differences between the hard disk storage (think library of information) and memory (RAM – random access memory) and the floppy drive (used to take the information with you). The hard drives started out in 5 1/4″ format storing 5MB (megabytes) of data growing steadily throughout the 1980’s up until the Quantum 1.28GB drive. To put this into perspective 1GB is about 250 MP3 songs. Unlike floppy disks, hard drives were installed inside the computer. Hard drives continued to progress shrinking their form factor to 3 1/2″ in the 1990’s. These hard drives were referred to as half-height drives. By the 1990’s the hard drives were growing rapidly starting around 40GB (gigabytes) of total storage all the way up to today’s 3TB (terabytes) drives.

Hard disk drives continue to shrink with the laptop models standardizing on 2 1/2″ form factor. Hard drives inside an exterior enclosure, while around technically for some time, were becoming available in the consumer market in standard formats like USB (Universal Serial Bus), FireWire, and SATA (Serial AT Attachment) though the 2000’s. These new formats allowed these enclosures to be fairly portable with a standardized interface (like USB) allowing you to connect to another system painlessly. USB provides a more generic plug and play capability allowing the system to identify the drive as soon as you connect it. There are some enclosures on the market that can hold multiple drives and even offer RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) capabilities. RAID provides the ability to either mirror your data from one hard drive to another or stretch (stripe) the data across the drives you have. What this provides is a failsafe in case you loose a hard disk drive due to failure the computer will not notice any difference in accessing your data as the other hard drives take over.

Although disk drives remained standardized by form factor (full height or half height) the floppy drive diversified into a full field of products including today’s USB drives. In late 1980 there came a new format called CD (compact disk) which offered data stored onto a plastic disc with reflective backing. These CD drives were 5 1/4″ form factor and fit easily into existing expansion bays in the PC. CDs began storing 680MB of data holding around 74 minutes of music and have topped out at 700MB of data. CDs became the standard format for removable storage and are still widely used today. In the early 1990’s Iomega came to market with the Iomega Zip drive. This external storage device started at 100MB and grew to 750MB densities. It was cartridge based continuing the 3 1/2″ floppy innovation. This new type of storage had different connections to the PC.

In the beginning the connection was SCSI (small computer system interface) but later on it developed into a USB (universal serial bus) connection. By 1995 SmartMedia had arrived on the scene from Toshiba Corporation. SmartMedia was a small (45mm) plastic card with a flash memory module inside allowing 2MB of direct storage but this quickly grew to the 64MB/128MB. These cards were used in digital cameras and other devices allowing the ability to remove the storage and read it on your PC. Today you can find various sizes up to 32GB on a single card. By contrast to older technologies these new devices were far more rugged than the floppy drive and much more portable. During this same timeframe the DVD (digital video disk) arrived to the market to replace the CD. This format provided 4.7GB (8.5G double layered) of storage space on the same optical disc format that the CDs were based on. As density increased Blu-Ray DVDs arrived to provide 50GB of storage space with dual layer discs being the most common. Blu-Ray provides the best high density video format available today commercially with 100GB of data being the standard.

Flash forward to today as the hard drives and portable external storage have progressed to SSD (Solid State Disk) technology. This transformed portable storage allowing for those ubiquitous USB flash drives people carry around with them. Internal hard drives based on SSD technology allow you to use SATA to connect the drive internally to your PC or laptop. SATA is the common standard for connecting hard drives. These drives are more durable and have a lower access time. As new emerging technologies arrive like cloud computing there will be less demand for portable storage and hard drives. Cloud computing allows you to run your application on the web while your data resides elsewhere (the cloud). Make no mistake your data is being stored, just not on your hard drive or floppy.

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