On September 14, 1956, IBM announced the 305 and 650 RAMAC (Random Access Memory Accounting) “data processing machines,” incorporating the first-ever disk storage product. The 305 came with fifty 24-inch disks for a total capacity of 5 megabytes, weighed 1 ton, and could be leased for $3,200 per month.
In 1953, Arthur J. Critchlow, a young member of IBM’s advanced technologies research lab in San Jose, California, was assigned the task of finding a better data storage medium than punch-cards. Visiting a number of customers, Critchlow learned that punch-card equipment performed well when the processing of information could be done in batches or sequentially stored information but became problematic when random access was needed.
Inventory control was such an activity. In warehouse operations, for example, each order typically required several cards to be manually located, removed from a stack of cards, the inventory information updated, and the updated cards returned to their original locations. To facilitate this activity, drawers of cards were set out on work tables so that several people could access cards from the same file. This manner of organizing and processing information, widely known as the “tub file,” was time consuming and error-prone.
The IBM project’s staff evaluated every existing storage technology in an attempt to find the best technological solution to the loss of productivity and poor quality associated with “tub files.” In addition to superior capacity and reliability, magnetic disks—the storage technology eventually selected—could provide random access to data. A new method (encoded in software) for finding stored data when its physical location on the disk was unknown, ensured the success of the new way to store, organize, and share business records.
Announced on September 4, 1956, the IBM 350 Disk Storage Unit came with fifty 24-inch disks and a total capacity of 5 megabytes; its first customer was United Airlines’ reservations system. Incorporated into the 305 and 650 RAMAC (announced ten days later), it promised, as the IBM press release said, “that business transactions will be completely processed right after they occur. There will be no delays while data is grouped for batch processing. People running a business will be able to get the fresh facts they need, at once. Random access memory equipment will not only revolutionize punched card accounting but also magnetic tape accounting.”
Later, it was exhibited in the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where visitors could query “Professor RAMAC” using a keyboard and get answers in any of ten languages. This public relations coup heralded a day when millions of people would get answers from the World Wide Web, the largest “tub file” ever assembled, using (mostly) Google’s AI.
Even before the emergence of the Web that gave billions of people an easily accessible channel for consuming and creating data, digital data exhibited its seemingly unlimited growth character. At the April 1980 Fourth IEEE Symposium on Mass Storage Systems, I.A. Tjomsland gave a talk titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which he said “Those associated with storage devices long ago realized that Parkinson’s First Law may be paraphrased to describe our industry—‘Data expands to fill the space available’…. I believe that large amounts of data are being retained because users have no way of identifying obsolete data; the penalties for storing obsolete data are less apparent than are the penalties for discarding potentially useful data.”
By 1996, digital storage became more cost-effective for storing data than paper, according to R.J.T. Morris and B.J. Truskowski in “The Evolution of Storage Systems.” And in 2002, digital information storage surpassed non-digital storage for the first time. According to “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information” by Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez, the world’s information storage capacity grew at a compound annual growth rate of 25% per year between 1986 and 2007. They also estimated that in 1986, 99.2% of all storage capacity was analog, but in 2007, 94% of storage capacity was digital, a complete reversal of roles.
In October 2000, Peter Lyman and Hal Varian at UC Berkeley published “How Much Information?”—the first comprehensive study to quantify, in computer storage terms, the total amount of new and original information (not counting copies) created in the world annually. They estimated that in 1999, the world produced 1.5 exabytes of original data. In March 2007, John Gantz, David Reinsel and other researchers at IDC published the first study to estimate and forecast the amount of digital data created and replicated each year. They estimated that the world created 161 exabytes (161 billion gigabytes) of data in 2006 and that between 2006 and 2010, the data added annually to the digital universe will increase more than six- fold to 988 exabytes, doubling every 18 months.
In 2022, over 100,000 exabytes of data will be generated worldwide, according to IDC, up from 33,000 exabytes only four years ago. IDC forecasts that 221,000 exabytes will be created, captured and replicated in 2026.
The information explosion (a term first used in 1941, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has turned into the big digital data explosion. And the data explosion enabled deep learning, an advanced data analysis method, to perform today’s AI breakthroughs in image identification and natural language processing.
The RAMAC became obsolete within a few years of its introduction as the vacuum tubes powering it were replaced by transistors. Today, disk drives still serve as the primary containers for digital data, but solid-state drives (flash memory), first used in mobile devices, are fast replacing disk drives even in today’s successors of the RAMAC, supporting large-scale business operations.
Whatever form the storage takes, IBM created in 1956 new markets and businesses based on fast access to digital data. As Seagate’s Mark Kryder asserted in 2006: “Instead of Silicon Valley, they should call it Ferrous Oxide Valley. It wasn’t the microprocessor that enabled the personal video recorder, it was storage. It’s enabling new industries.”
Today it is enabling AI, a new method of data analysis that is affecting all industries, enterprises and consumers.
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