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Celebrating the 55th anniversary of the hard disk

The platters of Big Blue spawn that changed the world

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Big Blue's spawn

IBM built and sold a thousand RAMACs, which probably bought the company around $30m – not bad at all. Big Blue stopped making it in 1961, five years after it was introduced, and replaced it with a better disk drive system: the 1405 Disk Storage Unit.

hitahi t7k500 hard disk drive

Hitachi GST hard disk drive, 500GB, 3.5-inch, spinning at 7,200rpm.

RAMAC gave birth to dozens and dozens of disk drive companies and formats but over time they were whittled down as manufacturing prowess and volume became as important as basic technology innovation.

IBM got out of the business, selling its disk drive operation to Hitachi GST, which is now being bought by Western Digital. Seagate is buying Samsung's drive operation, and Toshiba has bought Fujitsu's disk business. That's it, these are the disk drive survivors and millions of drives a year are pouring out of their factories.

Today's HDD is a compact and dense collection of technological miracles encased in metal box looking like any other slot-in piece of componentry. Inside are one, two, four or five platters with read/write heads on slider arms and a circuit board with chips on it. Each piece of equipment in there is fantastically highly engineered.

Big Blue's spawn is finally being threatened

Today we have 4 terabyte, 5-platter, 3.5-inch drives with a read/write head for each side of the platters. There is a 3 or 6Gbit/s interface to the host computer, and the drive spins at 7,200rpm with barely a sound. Faster drives that hold a few hundred gigabytes of data spin at 15,000rpm. The 305 RAMAC is a primitive beast indeed compared to today's Barracuda or Caviar drive. But dinosaurs were our ancestors, and RAMAC begat, eventually, Cheetah, Barracuda, Deskstar, Savvio, Caviar and every other disk drive brand you have come across.

Is the end in sight?

Until quite recently there has been no technology available to beat the hard disk drive combination of steadily increasing capacity, data transfer rate, space efficiency, cost and reliability. But the flash barbarians are at the gate with slightly better space efficiency, lower weight, much higher transfer rates, and also much higher cost.

Servers though need more data, much, much more data than before, and disk drives can't keep up. Big Blue's spawn is finally being threatened, and flash is taking over the primary data storage role with disk looking to be relegated to bulk data storage duties. We'll certainly still see disk in use in 10 years' time, but in 20 years' time and 30 years' time?

It's hard to say. However, the 55-year reign of this technology thus far has been an amazing feat and steadily increasing technology complexity combined with, and this is so amazing but taken so much for granted, steadily decreasing cost per megabyte of data stored. The whole HDD story is a testament to the effectiveness of high-volume manufacturing.

Over 160 million spinning disk drives will be delivered this year, with probably more next. They whir away inside our notebooks, PCs and servers, inside their anonymous metal cases, and serve up trillions of bytes of data over their lifetime. And we just take it for granted. That's the best tribute of all really. The technology inside these ordinary-looking metal boxes is so extraordinarily good that it just simply works, day after day after day...

Well, most of the time. Oh, what was that noise, that rending metallic sound? Oh, no, I've had a head crash. My data, oh good Lord, my data... ®

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