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A Brief History of Data Storage – Spring 2017
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New Technology: Driving Advances in Coastal Science
VOLUME 30, NUMBER 2, SPRING 2017             

By Joey Holleman                                                                       back to main story

A Brief History of Data Storage

Information is the backbone of research and science. Thus, the exponential expansion of data-storage capacity fueled advancements in those fields in the past 30 years.

Data storage moved forward at a snail’s pace from the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s until the 20th century. With the advent of the hard disk drive for storing digital information in the 1950s and magnetic tape storage in the 1970s, however, the capacity to store and process data exploded.

The pace of expansion in the past 30 years has been extraordinary.

  • In 1986, researchers stored kilobytes of data on floppy disks. About two kilobytes equal a page of type.
  • In 1993, CD-ROMs were the new storage platform of choice, holding megabytes, each about 1,000 kilobytes.
  • In 2000, storage began to move to disk arrays that could handle data in terabytes, each about one million megabytes.
  • By 2007, cloud storage on the internet meant researchers could store data in terms of petabytes, each about 1,000 terabytes.

When trying to wrap your brain around these numbers, consider that if one petabyte of data were translated to text on paper, it would fill about 20 million standard four-drawer filing cabinets.

Martin Hilbert and Priscilla Lopez tracked the world’s capacity to store data in a research paper that appeared in the April 1, 2011 issue of the journal Science. They estimated the amount of information stored on major analog (including books) and digital platforms worldwide in 1986 was 2.6 exabytes. An exabyte is 1,000 petabytes. Worldwide storage went up to 15.8 exabytes during the CD-ROM era, to 54.8 exabytes during the disk array era, and to 295 exabytes in 2007 as cloud storage took over.

In 2016, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Earth Exchange collaboration encouraged research projects that required processing of petabytes of data. Projects include creating a tree-cover map of the United States at one-meter resolution and utilizing more than 65 years of data to create climate change projections.

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Last updated: 6/29/2017 9:38:40 AM
A Brief History of Data Storage – Spring 2017


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