By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
September 11, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Hard drives radically changed the way the world stores data. And for a brief period, at least one was a tourist attraction as well.
Crown Zellerbach, at one time a major paper producer in San Francisco, was the first company to install a RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) machine, the first IBM computer with a then-newfangled piece of storage technology called a hard drive, according to Jim Porter, president of analysis firm Disk/Trend. The RAMAC--officially announced on Sept. 13, 1956--weighed 1 ton and stored 5MB of data on 50 spinning platters, 24 inches in diameter.
|1956||IBM 350. Consists of 50 disks, each 24 inches in diameter.|
|1962||IBM comes up a storage system based on packs of six 14-inch disks. Each pack holds 2MB. Commercially, this is when drives take off.|
|1979||IBM develops an 8-inch drive.|
|1980||The 5.25-inch "Winchester" drive makes its debut. Its design plays a key role in the development of the PC market.|
|1983||Rodine issues a 10MB 3.25-inch drive. It's still the standard form factor for desktops.|
|1988||PrairieTek releases its 2.5-inch 20MB drive, the size of which remains the mainstay in notebooks.|
|1991||Integrated Peripherals debuts its 1.8-inch drive. Drives this size aren't destined to go mainstream until the debut of Apple Computer's first iPod, more than 10 years later.|
|1992||Hewlett-Packard produces a 1.3-inch drive. It doesn't make a major bang, though drive manufacturers are now thinking about bringing it back.|
|1999||IBM releases a 1-inch microdrive with 340MB of capacity. That capacity has since expanded to 8GB.|
|2004||Toshiba shrinks the drive to 0.85 inches in diameter. Many believe that this is the smallest size drive that will be mass-made.|
Porter worked at Crown, which got the RAMAC because the company delivered a lot of computer card stock to IBM.
"Any time we had a business guest, they wanted to see it, so I'd take them three levels below Market Street to the computer room. You could see the head assembly moving back and forth. It put on a good show," Porter recalled. "I showed it off dozens of times."
A lot has changed in the last 50 years. Manufacturers now sell drives that hold 750GB, or 150,000 times more data than the RAMAC, but they weigh only a few ounces and measure just 3.5 inches across. Drives that can hold a terabyte will be announced late this year or early next year.
"The hard drive has advanced about 65 million times in areal density since the RAMAC, and we're still, in my estimation, three orders of magnitude from any truly fundamental limits," said Mark Kryder, chief technical officer of drive maker Seagate Technology.
Hard drives, moreover, have become pervasive. Between 1992 and 2003, roughly 1.5 billon drives shipped, capable of holding 41,400 exabytes, according to the "How Much Information?" study from the University of California at Berkeley. An exabyte is a billion gigabytes. Five exabytes would be enough to store all human speech since the dawn of time through 2002, according to the study. More data is stored on hard drives than on optical drives, paper or other media, according to the study.
This year, about 450 million to 460 million drives will leave factories, according to Disk/Trend.
The growth, in part, has derived from the seemingly never-ending demand for servers, PCs and data storage--as well as by a successful effort by drive makers to diversify outside of the PC market. High-end TVs come with built-in drives, while Toyota Motor and Mercedes-Benz are planning to embed hard drive-based navigation and entertainment systems into luxury cars, according to Bill Healy, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies.
TiVo-like digital video recorders wouldn't be possible without hard drives; home servers stocked with videos and music could be the next must-have item. Drives are also replacing tape drives for more permanent data storage, Healy added.
The realities of the drive industry--high capital costs, rapid technology changes, lots of competition, penny-pinching customers, short product life spans--have always made survival tough.
At the mid-1980s peak, 76 companies, including outfits such as Seiko and Citizen Watch, were churning out drives, according to Disk/Trend.
"Now, if you count very carefully, you'll find eight--and some of those are very small," Porter said. The top three makers--Seagate, Western Digital and Hitachi--account for about 75 percent of drives shipped. Life at the top, though, isn't easy. Although Seagate and Western Digital are currently profitable, Hitachi has experienced some unprofitable quarters recently, and margins for all companies remain tight.
"I don't remember a time when the money was rolling in," joked Al Shugart, who was one of the engineers on the RAMAC and went on to found Seagate. "It has always been a tough field, hasn't it?"
Much of the credit for the design of the drive goes to Reynold Johnson. IBM sent him to San Jose, Calif., in 1952 to develop a magnetic storage system in which data could be recorded or retrieved directly from any part of the medium. In tape systems, you need to rewind or fast-forward to get to a particular point of data.
At the time, many thought of devising a magnetic cylinder. The problem with cylinders, though, is surface area: A cylinder capable of holding 5MB of data with the materials at the time would have been at least 17 feet long. Johnson came up with the idea of stacking magnetic disks, said Al Hoagland, who runs the Magnetic Disk Heritage Center and worked on the RAMAC with Johnson. (For the record, the RAMAC 305 was the computer system that contained the first drive. The 350 was the name of the actual drive array attached to the RAMAC 305.)
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Editors: Mike Ricciuti, Zoë Slocum
Design: Mitjahm Simmons
Production: Jessica Kashiwabara
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