Storage Technologies

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About This Technology

June 2004

Ours is the information age. For information to be of any use—for it to pass from a momentary subjective experience into useful knowledge—it needs to be permanent: Words have to be written down, music has to be recorded, results of experiments have to be quantified and secured. Increasingly, information is digitized and recorded in digital format—that is, as a string of zeros and ones. Many aspects of physics are suitable for storing binary code, but only three are of commercial value today: magnetics, optics, and electronics.

Information storage has become an enabling technology in many of today's technologies: Computers operate on software they have imported from optical discs and store on magnetic disks; digital cameras derive their value from the instant availability of the pictures they take; banks and ATMs have instant access to the accounts and credit status of consumers. An airplane on autopilot finds its way using information stored on a computer disk. Information that consumers and industry find on the Internet is stored on magnetic disks somewhere in cyberspace.

Optical discs dominate consumer electronics in music: CDs and DVDs and CD-ROM and DVD-ROMs in the distribution of games and software. CD-Rs have gained popularity with consumers for recording music, taking the role that once belonged to the audiotape, and CD-RW as backup for PCs. A subset of optical discs is the magneto-optical disc, which is valuable for its archival uses but has also conquered a niche in the consumer electronics market.

Solid-state flash memory, based on arrays of semiconducting chips, is in use in flashcards, credit cards, and portable equipment and plays an important role in electronic photography. Flash memories operate faster than disk technologies.

HDD, OST, and flash memories are randomly accessible devices. Another magnetic storage technology, magnetic tapes, offers only sequential access to information, which places tapes in an inferior position, regardless of their storage capacity. Their only role is for backup storage of information on disks. Magnetic tapes for recording music have almost vanished, and their value for recording video is also decreasing with the advent of alternatives.