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Happy 50th to the hard disk drive

Inside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, sits an odd-looking, fridge-sized contraption that could have been created by an out-of-control set designer for Lost in Space.

But this homely piece of hardware was the guest of honour at a celebration last night on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first computer hard disk drive.

On 13 September 1956 IBM launched the RAMAC (random access memory for accounting and control) 305 and RAMAC 350, two models of a disk drive system that could store a whopping 5MB of data.

At a briefing for the press earlier this week, Barry Rudolph, vice-president at IBM's storage and technology group, said his PowerPoint presentation about the history of hard-drive technology would be too big to store on the RAMAC.

About 400 computer industry veterans and others attending the celebration at the museum toasted the golden anniversary of the technology that advanced the computer industry and continues to do so today.

"The hard disk! How many technologies ever last 50 years?" said Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, whose hometown of San Jose, California, is also the hometown of the disk drive. "It's an amazing invention that changed the world."

The RAMAC was capable of storing 2,000 bits of data on a square inch of disk space, a measure known as its areal density.

Today Hitachi, which bought IBM's hard disk drive business in 2003, said it has achieved an areal density of 345Gb (345 billion bits) per square inch in its laboratories, using a technique that stacks magnetic particles perpendicular to the disk, rather than lying parallel to it.

At that kind of density, a 2TB (terabyte) disk drive for desktops, a 400GB drive for notebooks, or a 200GB mini-drive like those used in portable music players could be on the market by 2009, Hitachi said.

Given those extraordinary capacities, 5MB RAMAC seems inadequate, but back then such technology was revolutionary.

"The first disk drive I saw was the one of the first ones IBM made," said Jim Porter, former publisher of a Silicon Valley disk drive industry report. In 1956, Porter worked at Crown-Zellerbach, a former paper products manufacturer that took delivery of one of the first RAMACs and used it to track the company's payroll, billing and other accounting functions.

"Because of the random access memory, it was much more cost-efficient than tapes or drums for data storage," Porter said.

With all the disk drives in all the computers, servers and other storage devices available today, businesses aren't having as much trouble storing data as much as they are organising, retrieving and analysing it to expand their businesses.

Earlier this month, at IBM's Almaden Labs research center in San Jose, company researchers discussed what the next 50 years of data storage could hold.

"We want to take that landfill of data and turn it into a gold mine," said Dilip Kandlur, director of storage systems at IBM Research.

The researchers explained several new types of data storage technology in various stages of development. One of them, Intelligent Data Storage, would use software to manage a storage network, assess storage needs, analyse data and assist in retrieving data when it is needed.

"You want to be able to tell the system, 'I want more storage of this type,' and have it happen," said IBM researcher Linda Duyanovich.

Other storage makers, including EMC, are also researching new storage technology, said Gartner analyst Roger Cox.

For sure, companies wouldn't be talking gigabytes, terabytes and petabytes of storage if it weren't for the RAMAC shipped out the door 50 years ago today.

The Magnetic Disk Heritage Center is helping to restore the RAMAC at the Computer History Museum to its full 1956-era functionality.

"In the technology industry, we throw away and overwrite our history all the time," said Thomas Coughlin, a data storage consultant and founder of the Heritage Center. "I think it's important for us to remember the technology that got things started."

For more information, our sister site Techworld has a comprehensive data storage resource centre.

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