Once upon a time, a 5MB hard drive for your PC would have set you back around $50,000. To put it in perspective, that’s about enough to store a single low resolution selfie. Flash forward 65 years, and now a 4TB hard drive (HD) will cost you around $100. That’s about 200,000 times the capacity for 0.2 percent the cost, without even taking into account inflation rates.
The history of the hard drive stands as not only a fascinating story of tech evolution, it’s directly responsible for the launch of the Information Age. We’re a data-driven society, and without high-capacity hard drives in computers, phones and data centers, that wouldn’t be possible.
Stick with us as we take a spin through hard-drive history to discover just where it all came from, where the technology stands today and where it might be headed. We’ll also give you some pointers supplementing your hard drive with cloud storage, backing up your data with online backup and suggest some data recovery tools for when you run into problems.
IBM & the First Hard Drive
In a way, the history of the hard drive actually dates back to 1889. That was the year that Herman Hollerith was granted a patent that would later lead to the development of a machine that that could record and store information using punch cards.
While that technology was developed to help streamline U.S. census efforts, it later achieved popularity for use in other works and formed a key component of the growing data processing industry. Hollerith’s company was later renamed International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM. It was IBM engineers that would years later, in 1953, build the first hard drive.
These days, most of us carry around a hard drive in our pocket. That first go, which was later sold commercially in the vaunted RAMAC 305, weighed over a ton and required the space of an entire room.
The cost, at $10,000 per MB, was so prohibitive that only the U.S. military and wealthy private corporations could afford the RAMAC 305. It’s primary use was real-time accounting, though it was no QuickBooks Online.
The technology behind the hard drive used by the RAMAC 305, however, was an instrumental first iteration of the same magnetic storage technology still used in hard-disk drives (HDDs) today. It featured a moving head to record and retrieve data on a magnetic medium.
Because the RAMAC 305 was so unwieldy and lacked any storage customization options (at first IBM didn’t think anybody could possibly need more than 5MB), IBM introduced removable platters in the early 1960s with the IB 1301 mainframe.
The IBM 1311, launched in 1963, could hold six disks each capable of a storing a whopping 2.6MB of data. The size of storage disks were also shrunk from 24 inches to 14 inches. The price of the mainframe was also greatly reduced by this point.
While the advancements in storage density led to decreased costs and more widespread use in universities and businesses, these early takes on the HDD were still very expensive. Real advancement didn’t come until things got personal.
Hard Drives & the PC Revolution
IBM introduced the first 1GB HDD in 1980. However, at a cost of $44,000, it wasn’t exactly priced to find a way into the home of the average consumer. The fact that it weighed 500 pounds presented another rather large problem.
It was Seagate, incorporated in 1978, that really changed things up, thanks to its introduction of the first 5.25 inch HDD in 1980, the ST506.
Seagate’s entry established an industry standard in interface and form factor used into the 1990s. The cost was still expensive, at $1,500 for just 5MB of storage. That’s the equivalent of over $4,000 today. While tough to imagine, that’s still about a 98 percent reduction in cost from the RAMAC 305.
A 10MB version was introduced just a few months later, and 20MB version not long after that. Things were getting crazy.
While many other manufacturers launched similar HDDs on the heels of its ST506, it was Seagate that became a major supplier to IBM’s growing “IBM Personal Computer” line, which launched 1981 and is where the term “PC” comes from. Following the release of the IBM Personal Computer AT in 1984, hard drives came standard with all PCs.
Also critical to the growth of the hard drive was a company called Rondime, which developed the first 3.5-inch HDD in 1983.
Former Seagate co-founder Finis Conner got on board the 3.5-inch movement in 1985 after forming Conner Peripherals, which partnered with Compaq Computers. While Rondime ceased to become profitable a year later, Conner Peripherals reached over $1.3 billion in sales by 1990, becoming the fastest growing startup in U.S. history at that time.
Then there was Prairie Tek, which put out the very first 2.5-inch HDD in 1988, which like the 3.5-inch HDD, the industry consolidated around. Today, most desktop computers use 3.5-inch HDDs, while laptops use the smaller 2.5-inch size.
Of course, there were a whole range of other companies vying for elbow room in the hard drive space. That includes Tandon, which was later acquired by Western Digital, Seagate’s biggest competitor today.
The result of all that jostling position was faster innovation and lower prices for consumers. A gigabyte of storage in 1960 would have cost around $10,000,000. In 1980, that cost was reduced to around $200,000, and by 1990 it had dropped to around $8,000 per gigabyte.
By most people’s standards, that’s still a lot of money. However, the trend in dropping prices continued, and by 2005 the cost per gigabyte had fallen to under $1, cheaper than a cup of coffee.
Backblaze, the cloud company behind our pick for best online backup for home service, has charted the cost per gigabyte of drive storage in recent years. Since 2009, the price steadily decreased from $0.12 to just over $0.03 eight years later, with just a minor bump in the road in 2011 due to flooding in Thailand.
HDD Sizes Today
Along with a remarkable decrease in cost per gigabyte, HDD capacities have exploded since the 20MB days of the mid-1980s PC scene.
Both Seagate and Western Digital make 12TB HDDs, sold for between $400 to $500 on Amazon. That works out to $0.04 per gigabyte, though, so you’ll be paying a smidge more than storage if you want a more affordable 4TB HDD for $100.
|Manufacturer:||Model:||Capacity:||Cost:||Cost per GB:|
|Western Digital||WE Blue||2TB||Around $60||$0.030|
|Western Digital||WE Blue||4TB||Around $100||$0.025|
|Western Digital||WE Blue||6TB||Around $180||$0.030|
|Western Digital||WE Blue||12TB||Around $500||$0.042|
Granted, those are costs for 3.5-inch HDDs. If you’re using a laptop and rocking an HDD, it’s probably 2.5-inch rather than 3.5-inch, which run slightly more expensive. Many laptop manufacturers today, however, now use SSDs instead of HDDs.
Birth of the Solid-State Drive (SSD)
While HDDs uses a spinning platter to store data and a mechanical arm to read and write, SSDs use flash memory. Flash memory means data is stored in microchips rather than platters.
One of the advantages of that approach is that the moving parts of HDDs are more susceptible to breaking. SSDs have an annual failure rate of less a few tenths of a percent, while rates for HDDs are estimated to run between four and six percent.
The bigger advantage, however, is that because they don’t need to spin up and don’t rely on a mechanical arms moving too and fro, SSDs are much faster than HDDs. SSDs have access times of around 0.1 ms and can perform 6,000 input-output operations per second. HDDs, by comparison, have access times of up to 8 ms and can only perform around 400 input-output operations per second.
The disadvantage of using SSDs rather than HDDs is cost. The first solid-state drive, invented in 1991 by SanDisk, had a capacity of 20MB and cost around $1,000. As with HDDs, SSD capacities have increased by leaps and bounds since then, and the cost per gigabyte has dropped dramatically.
However, a 250GB SSD like the popular Samsung 850 Evo still costs around $100. For the same price, you can get a 4TB HDD. A 1TB Samsung Evo, meanwhile, costs around $350. That’s why if you purchase an ultraslim laptop, which tend to use SSDs because they’re also thinner and lighter than HDDs, you’re probably going to be looking at a 128 to 500GB drive capacity.
All that said, the largest hard drive currently made isn’t an HDD, it’s an SSD. That, at the time of this writing anyway, is the recently announced 100TB ExaDrive DC100 made by Nimbus Data. Unfortunately, it’ll likely be priced in the tens of thousands of dollars range. For the moment, low-capacity SSDs are all most consumers will be able to afford.
Low-Capacity SSDs & Cloud Storage
Thankfully, the comparatively scant storage capacity of SSDs shouldn’t be a big deal thanks to one of our favorite topics here at Cloudwards.net, cloud storage.
Popularized by big names like Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive, cloud storage lets you store your files in a remote data center instead of on your computer. As long as you have an internet connection, you can access them there.
If you need help finding the right cloud storage for your needs, our best cloud storage guide should do the trick. If you’re looking for lots of storage for cheap, we also have a review of the best deals in cloud storage.
Our personal favorites include smaller but more secure options in Sync.com and pCloud, both of which give you 2TB of storage for around $8 a month. Read our head-to-head article to find out which of those to services can best supplement your hard drive.
Backup Your Hard Drive
Let’s rewind a bit to those annual failure rates we mentioned, because a four to six percent failure rate for HDDs should give anyone pause. Whether you’re an SMB owner or just a home consumer, your drive is likely full of files you’d rather not lose. Financial records, academic papers, family photos: all could be gone in an instant if your hard drive crashes.
Even with SSD drives, failure is an option. Further, computer and smartphone drives can be otherwise damaged, such as through heat or water damage, or lost or stolen.
That’s why, as advanced as hard drives might be today, it’s as critical as ever to back them up. For that, there are two options: local backup and online backup.
Local backup options like network-attached storage (NAS) devices are relatively inexpensive these days, thanks to the decrease in hard drive prices. However, online backup offers more reliability, as providers tend to store multiple copies of your files across different servers, which are themselves sheltered in hardened data centers.
For ease of use and to accommodate those future 12TB SSDs, we recommend Backblaze as an online backup solution for home use. That’s because it nets you unlimited backup space for just $5 per month. Read about some of the other features we like, such as private encryption and multithreaded backup, in our full Backblaze review.
For business users, CloudBerry Backup ranks as one of our preferred picks. We talk about the reason why in our CloudBerry Backup review, but a few highlights include hybrid backup, block-level file copying and image-based backup.
While CloudBerry doesn’t have a cloud of its own, you can pair the software with over 50 different cloud services, including popular IaaS options like Amazon S3, Azure, Google Cloud and Backblaze B2. As with cloud storage, we’ve put together a buyer’s guide for the best online backup providers if you want to read up on some of the other options.
Hard Drive Recovery Software
While backing up your hard drive is a smart idea, we’d hazard a guess that most people don’t get wise until they’ve actually experienced a data loss. Or, at least that was the case with some of us here at Cloudwards.net.
Should your hard drive crash or a file be accidentally deleted without a backup plan in place, the good news is that all may not be lost. You can try your luck with one of several data recovery software options available. These tools work by scanning the partitions of your hard drive to reconstruct documents, images, audio, video and other files.
You can learn about our favorite disaster recovery tool by reading our Stellar Phoenix Data Recovery review. Have a look at our best data recovery software guide to find out how Stellar Phoenix compares to other options.
The Future of the Hard Drive
While SSDs may be the vogue pick for personal data storage today, HDDs are still getting plenty of attention from innovative manufacturers. For example, a company called Hoya is experimenting with glass platters to replace the traditionally used aluminum substrate.
Thanks to the ability to make platters that are half the thickness, and thus fit more platters inside an HDD, it’s expected Hoya’s technology advancement will improve HDD storage capacity to up to 20TB. Such developments are critical, not only because the world continues to produce exponentially more data, but because flash storage is running short.
The problem with the flash storage market is that fabrication labs cost billions of dollars and several years to build. They can’t keep up with the demand for SSDs, thanks mostly to the growth of the smartphone industry. As such, HDDs aren’t going anywhere for a while yet.
That the hard drive has fundamentally changed the world is unquestionable. From massive mainframes in the 1950s to handheld devices today, the history of the hard drive has seen data storage progress from mere megabytes that costs thousands of dollars to gigabytes for pennies.
The result has been that humankind has been able to amass an astronomical amount of data, producing an estimated 2.5 quatrillions bytes per day. Amazingly, about 99 percent of that data has been produced in the past few years.
By 2025, research sponsored by Seagate predicts the world will be producing around 163 zettabytes per year. One zettabyte, for those not aware, equates to one trillion gigabytes. And to think, the reason IBM originally stuck with 5MB of data in its RAMOC 350 was that its engineers couldn’t imagine anybody possibly needing more.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of hard drive history. Share your thoughts on data storage in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out our cloud comparison tool if you need help finding an online backup or cloud storage service.