Hard disk drives offer substantial advantages over other high-capacity storage media: they’re relatively fast, inexpensive, and dependable, ideally suited for personal computing. While many newer computers utilize solid-state drives, flash media, and cloud storage, hard drives are still extremely popular. This page showcases some of the most important advances in hard drive technology.
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1956 – The First Commercial Hard Drive
IBM introduces the first computer disk storage system, the 305 RAMAC. The system could store 5 megabytes and had fifty 24-inch diameter disks. It used a single set of read/write heads to operate.
The 305 RAMAC was introduced for business use, and while it became obsolete in the early 1960s, it was fairly popular for its time. Over 1,000 units were produced.
1961 – The First Air-Bearing Read/Write Heads
IBM invents the first disk drive with air-bearing heads. The IBM 301 Disk Storage Unit was less prone to failure and data loss than the 305 RAMAC, since the heads didn’t actually touch the disks during operation; they floated on a thin layer of air.
This innovation would prove important, as every modern hard drive uses a similar design.
1965 – The Removable Disk Pack Drive
IBM introduces the removable disk pack drive – layered platters that could be read simultaneously with multiple sets of heads. This design influenced the multi-platter architecture used in most modern drives, although the early disk packs were removable.
Engineers R.E. Pattison and Thomas G. Leary invented the removable disk pack, and it was a profitable innovation for IBM. It was used in many early computer models including the IBM 2311.
1970 – The Floppy Disk
Several companies (including IBM once again) introduce 200 millimeter diskettes. The 8-inch “floppy disk” is immensely popular, as they allow programs and data to move easily between computers. They were very limited in terms of storage capacity, however, and they did not replace the hard drive as the primary secondary storage option of the time.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the diskette would gain popularity before eventually becoming obsolete with the introduction of flash media and user-writable optical media.
1973 – The First Sealed Hard Drive
IBM creates the model 3340 Winchester sealed hard disk drive, the predecessor of all current disk drives. Unlike early hard drives, the 3340 Winchester doesn’t have a removable disk pack; it’s sealed, which allowed for more precise operating conditions. It also has lubricated platters and low-load read/write heads. It features two spindles, each with a disk capacity of 35 megabytes for a total capacity of 70 megabytes.
The 3340 was succeeded by the 3350, which introduced a “fixed head” area for a greatly reduced seek time.
1980 – Hard Disk Drives for Microcomputers
Seagate Technology introduces the first hard disk drive for microcomputers. The ST506 can hold 5 megabytes of data – an astounding accomplishment for the time.
Phillips also introduces the first optical laser drive.
1986 – The Introduction of IDE and SCSI
Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) technology is first proposed. It is a standard which controls the flow of data between the processor and the hard disk.
While IDE doesn’t become an actual hardware standard, the proposals were integrated into an industry-agreed interface specification known as ATA (AT Attachment). ATA defines a command and register set for the interface, creating a universal standard for communication between the drive unit and the PC.
The SCSI specification is also completed in 1986. It is a bus which controls the flow of data between the processor and its peripherals. It can handle up to eight devices such as hard disks, CD-ROM drives, printers, and scanners.
1988 – RAID Technology Expands Hard Drive Storage Capabilities
Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) is proposed. The original concept was to cluster small, inexpensive disk drives into an array, which would appear to the system as a single large expensive drive. This arrangement also had better performance characteristics than an individual hard drive, and subsequent development of RAID resulted in numerous standardized RAID levels to offer a combination of performance and data protection.
RAID technology eventually powers most web servers – although at this point in history, the Internet still hasn’t gone global.
1992 – Hard Drives Get Smarter
SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) by IBM is introduced. It allows hard drives to use Predictive Failure Analysis (PFA) to indicate a probable failure.
1993 – Introduction of Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics
Western Digital introduces Enhanced IDE (EIDE). It is built to overcome the constraints of ATA, and it supports faster data transfer rates and higher disk capacities.
EIDE also supports AT Attachment Packet Interface (ATAPI), which allows for non-disk peripherals such as CD-ROM drives and tape drives. EIDE becomes popular with desktop computer users.
Several years later, EIDE’s data transfer rate limit was doubled to 33 MBps by Ultra ATA technology.
2003 – Introduction of the SATA Interface
Serial ATA is introduced, allowing faster data transfer through a revised computer bus interface. SATA quickly becomes a popular hard drive standard for desktops and laptops, replacing earlier standards such as EIDE.
2007 – The First 1 Terabyte Hard Drive
Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) surpasses an important benchmark in data storage technology by announcing a hard drive with a 1 terabyte capacity. Debuting at $399, the Deskstar 7K1000 relaxed areal density, allowing for high storage capacity with excellent reliability.
2011 – The First 1 Terabyte Platter
Hitachi Global Storage Technologies achieves another milestone by introducing the 7K1000.D. The drive’s platters are each capable of storing 1 terabyte of information.
In a press release, HGST notes that while “the areal density race continues and while having the highest capacity is appealing, reaching 1TB per platter is equally important as it serves a full range of applications and opportunities across the industry’s largest market volume.”
2014 – The Rise of Helium
HGST (now owned by Western Digital) announces that it will end production of air-filled hard drives for corporate products, instead using helium to improve reliability while reducing power consumption.