Data storage through the ages: Which are you still using today?

on January 22, 2014

The need for humans to store information dates back to our earliest days, but the amount of data continues to grow. The media and storage density have improved over time, though the path to the present has involved tradeoffs around speed, durability and portability as you can see below.

Word of mouth (Hundreds of thousands of years ago)


Write speed: Depends on the level of sobriety of the listener
Durability: Multiple generations with media transfers, low data integrity across transfers
Other considerations: Data tends to change every time it’s accessed


Cave drawings (40,000 years ago)


Write speed: Slow
Durability: Thousands to millions of years (indoors), reduced with acid rain (outdoors)
Other considerations: Sometimes hard to decipher, and well, it’s in a cave


Clay tablets (4000 BC)


Write speed: Slow
Durability: Thousands of years (if not dropped)
Other considerations: Quite possibly the birth of portable storage


Books/Libraries/Printed Page/Moveable Type (800 BC – 1900 AD present)


Write speed: Thousands of pages per hour via printing press
Durability: Hundreds of years, or until the first food accident
Other considerations: Optimized for single writer, multiple readers


Microfiche (1900)


Write speed: Similar to a book but smaller print
Durability: ~500 years (or 500 years too long according to many users)
Other considerations: Doubles as a placemat or dustpan when data no longer needed


Magnetic Tape (1950 – today)

old video cassette

Write speed: LTO 20-400+MB/sec (between rewinds)
Durability: 30+ years, but sensitive to environmentals and large magnets
Other considerations: When stored remotely, as accessible as a cave drawing


Hard Disk Drive (1960 – present)


Write speed: Up to ~1Gbyte/sec depending on rotation speeds and geometries
Durability: 300,000 hours MTBF (get out your calculator)
Other considerations: If you did the math, you know they fail, so you need many of them (RAID)


Floppy disks and removable media (1971 – 2000)


Write speed: Ip to ~1Mbit/sec on a good day
Durability: Most of the time, when not accidentally spilled or sat on
Other considerations: Later versions less quirky


Optical Media (1990s – present)


Write speed: Multiple Mbyte/sec
Durability: Great until scratched (your kids may already know this)
Other considerations: Useful as coasters or recycle art once scratched, relegated to movies when Netflix streaming is not working


Modern Flash Media (SSD, USB, SD card) (2000-present)


Write speed: Very fast until full, then speed is comparable to clay tablets
Durability: Millions of write erase cycles (last longer if you don’t do that)
Other considerations: Extremely fast read speeds, no rotational latency


Cloud Storage (2008-present)


Write speed: Fast local, slower remote over WAN, but can be accelerated with gateway
Durability: 99.999999999% (get out the calculator again, but this one’s good)
Other considerations: Like a cloud, storage that you can see, but can’t really touch or feel


Image credits: Wikipedia

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