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Journey of the Evolution of Secondary Storage

From Paper Tape to Floppy to Solid State USB Drive

Do you remember the last time you used the FDD drive of your computer, and for what? Chance is if you have used it then it would be for some emergency booting of the computer, or for recovery of your broken OS. In summary, you would have not used it as a data transfer or storage medium.

Currently this magnetic medium is fast getting replaced by the Flash Rom drives that we also know by Pen Drive or USB Drive. This new medium is killing the old magnetic medium for its reliability, speed and ever growing capacity.

Historically the secondary storage is always in the realm of change. Technology and needs are always pushing the medium smaller, faster, more reliable, secure and of expanding capacity. Just like some 10 years back the 5.25" dives were replaced by this 3.5" drives for smaller size and larger capacity.


History of secondary storage is quiet interesting, as it has seen the use of papers to silicon to optical medium. With each generation it gets better, faster and smaller is size and always increasing the storage capacity.

Paper Punch Card
Paper Punch cards used initially as the first external storage device. It used paper card/roll with holes as data. Meaning a hole was zero, and no hole was one. Programmers used to punch the card for even providing input. Printers were there to punch the output for storage.

Floppy Drive (8")
Once the magnetic media started to be used for storage, paper was quickly made obsolete. Magnetic disks of round shape emerged as the standard for secondary storage device. It became very popular as it was more robust and handy than the paper roll, and could store more data as was relatively sturdy.

Floppy Drive (5.25")
Further advancement in the material and magnetic domain provided better density and provided much higher storage capacity in smaller area. Now the disks also started to become double sided providing even more data storage area in the same size disks.

Floppy Drive (3.5")
This media peaked with the 3.5" FDD that is small and sturdy enough to carry in the jeans pocket. This case also provided cover even for the area that is used for reading. This resulted in more protection from dust etc even if the floppy is not in any cover.

Zip Drive
This drive released in 1994 by a company called Iomega was capable of holding 100MB of data. This also uses the magnetic coating like the other FDD, but of higher quality and of superior technology that needs specialized drives for reading and writing on this media. This made is a good backup drive (like tape drives), but not good for using it on any machine. Currently the Zip Disk can hold 250MB of data.

Flash Drive (USB Drive)
Also known as Pen Drive is the next revolution in secondary portable storage device. Starting with couple of MB storage capacity the main attraction was its solid state rugged construction and capable of being used on any computer equipped with USB port. Initially it needed specific driver to be installed on the earlier OS in order to it getting recognized, but later, due to its universally standard and open protocol and rise in use of USB port in computers, its support was provided along with the OS. (Windows/Macintosh/Linux also support this natively out of the box).

So now virtually nothing more is needed for this drive to work if you have a computer with USB port. Though the manufacturers are also providing additional features to the hardware drive like security to the data stored on it using encryption, but these features generally require additional software/driver to be installed in order to be used. And since there is not much standard for these features it is mostly device specific and is largely ignored for its lack of compatibility.

This standardization of protocol has lead to not only popularity of the USB flash drives, but has also provided a common way for other media to act as drive via this protocol. So now there are storage products making use of this standard to become USB drives (also called USB Mass Storage). Example includes USB Hard Disk Drives, Zip Drive with USB interface, digital camera having a USB cable to make it an USB drive for accessing all the photographs clicked, even PDAs like Palm that already connect to the computer using USB port acts as a USB drive for accessing the data in its memory and SD/MMC Card present or the Mp3 player that doubles as USB drive!! The list and applications are getting bigger and bigger, ultimately making this drive a very popular and successful.

Currently 1 GB USB flash drives are available, and bigger drives are on the horizon. (Interestingly HDD popular as of now is of 160GB and more).

Card Media (SD/MMC/MS)
It it that stamp sized media that became popular from portable devices like Cameras and Phones. Media started shrinking and its capacity always increasing. One can locate a 8 GB Micro SD Card at a reasonable price these days. It uses the same technology as the USB Drive internally, only the interface is differing in order for it to be used by various devices like Camera and Mobile Phones. Now days Card Reader for these type of media are getting shipped as a standard accessory from leading Computer manufacturers.

Portable USB HDD

As mentioned above this is also getting popular and is popular mainly for higher speed and capacity than what is currently provided by the USB flash drive. On the flip side it is still fragile (as having moving element) and bulkier than the flash drive.

Solid State Disk (SSD) having USB Interface

This is a semiconductor (like flash memory) based persistent data storage device that is having no moving parts inside, hence Solid State Disk. It emulates a Hard Disk Drive Interface with added bonus being more robust, faster, quieter, less space and power requirement, as compared to any hard disk drive.

These devices have started to find way into high end Laptops and Computers (like Sony Vaio TZ Series). Though costly right now, it may become a standard secondary storage medium in the coming years.

Holographic Drives

Last but not the least is the future. This is the media of the future that uses technology that is still in its infancy and is called holography. Though holography and holograms are nothing new and was discovered in late 1940s, but its application for data storage is new. A company called InPhase Technologies is one of the forerunners in this field that has prototyped disks that can hold 200GB to 1.6TB of data. This technology uses lasers for reading and writing of data.


  Why FDD is dying?  

Using this 1.44MB floppy disk drive was always bit unreliable. We can all recall the Sector 0 Bad error, and myriad number of utilities supporting various recovery and advanced modifications like one marking sectors bad (NDD - Norton Disk Doctor and its surface scan, which was ultimately acquired by Symantec and is part of its Norton Utilities Toolset right now). Another very popular utility was to create another zero sector if the actual one was gone bad.

So what is remaining in the way of death of this magnetic medium? Only time!

As of now few features still needs the magnetic floppy disk drive, like for booting for the first time, or for upgrading BIOS for the motherboard etc. This is due to it's easy of programming at the lower level and more importantly for its inbuilt support in the BIOS program. So as soon as the modern BIOS start supporting the USB drives (motherboards have now started to come with this support) the floppy days are numbered.

Current Support of USB Devices by the Motherboard/BIOS
The current motherboards and BIOS have started the support of USB drive as boot device. Meaning you cab have your whole operating system on this device, or simply use it as the bootable floppy. Depending on the operation you perform resources are available on the Internet. Please checkout the links provided below where it provides tips and tricks of doing so.

Speaking of easy of use, the problem lies with the Windows OS right now that does not support making the USB drive bootable. It does allow you to format the USB drive and choose the file system format, but the Make Booteble option is not present at all. Never mind as re are lot of tools and utilities available (for all popular OS) that supports making it bootable, though you will need to work a bit more.



As you see there is very little need of Floppy Disks for any use/operation and is getting replaced fast by the USB drives. Already major computer vendors have made FDD as optional feature. Now the time has come of the USB flash drive over the demise of the FDD.

Akhilesh Singh
March 16, 2006

Last Updated: 1st April 2008

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