The Evolution of the Way We Store Our Data

Oct 1, 2014

Remember the time when you had so much space to fill in your floppy disks? Or when you were burning all your MP3s into a CD or a DVD? But now, all those are pretty much garbage. Our understanding of data has changed, which has brought about some political and philosophical questions.

I’m only old enough to recall a Windows 95 PC, my first computer. I think I was 5 when I first encountered a PC, which was at home for mom’s work purposes. When I was 10, I started downloading programming tutorials from PCs in my school and would bring them home to practice during the night. I would use this magical storage device called a floppy disk, 3½-inch ones. It seemed like I had a lot of space, I would never run out. It was a whopping 1.44 MBs, how could I possibly run out! Then I started bringing carrying my favorite music in MP3 format; that was the time I felt like this space is not enough! The new and slightly more expensive alternative came to my help: CDs. 700 MBs! Almost 5oo times what I could store, I was able to store in this circular thing. One setback though, you could only burn to CDs once and you could not reuse them. Then I learned there were processes that let you reuse a CD/DVD, but this whole burning process was too much! Why couldn’t I just copy and paste files? It didn’t matter much, because soon after, most successful commercial PCs would ship without a CD drive. Then USB flash drives seemed like that was it! Every day, the good old hard drive storage was losing its value with portable storage alternatives, but it seemed like the major drawback in these portable alternatives were the storage size. From those days to today, it seems like our highly physical understanding of data is starting to become a virtual one, thanks to one new technology sparkled with several innovations in data storage: cloud computing.

If you feel inclined to see how all these happened, there is a great live info graphic here.

The truth is, we love mobile devices because human beings are mobile by nature. We are not used to staying in closed spaces for too long. We are alive when we are on the go. That being said, our data is our identity, so we prefer to have it with us at all times. There is probably an important philosophical question here that needs to be answered, but it seems like that question has the answer to why mobile electronics are replacing the bulky but powerful alternatives. But are we ready to let our data fly without us touching it? It looks like we are.

So what is this cloud computing? It is not a new concept. In 2009, Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, has famously ranted about cloud computing joking that it is not water vapor, but instead it’s bunch of computers connected to the internet. I think he was kind of mad about the claims of how innovative cloud computing is, but it’s not. He actually envisioned cloud computing back in 1996. Watch the below video to see how this guy has envisioned today, 18 years ago. It’s surprisingly accurate.

Another question is: How did cloud computing become possible? Why did we have to wait like 15 years after Larry Ellison’s rant for it to become popular? It’s even said that an idea of an “intergalactic computer network” was introduced in 1960s.

Well, in 1975, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, famously made an observation which would later be called as Moore’s law:

Moore’s law is the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

Mark Kryder, a former executive of Seagate, a well-known data storage company, had the following observation in 2005:

The pace of increase in magnetic disk areal storage density is much faster than the doubling in semiconductor chip density occurring every two years in Moore’s Law.

So there you go: The exponential increase in storage technology would obviously result in an exponential drop in price. This allowed big companies like Google to buy dirt cheap hardware and throw them at their data centers. Obviously these cheap hardware would fail more often, so they had to have the data available at multiple machines to increase the reliability and availability of it. Google initially stored its own commercial data in cloud storage with these principles, and when the time was right with the pricing, they and several other giants have launched commercial cloud storage solutions.

Even with the exponential price drops in physical data storage, cloud storage wasn’t very affordable. However, in early September 2014, almost all giant cloud storage companies have dropped prices of their storage plans. Now, for as low as what you pay for a newspaper daily, you can have a cloud storage space for one month. Google and Microsoft now sell 100GB storage for $2/month. With all other providers including Dropbox and Box, 1 TB for $10/month seems to be standardized. With these changes, also I have finally moved all my files to the cloud. It seemed like the right and timely decision to make.

What does all this mean? In my opinion, considering an average personal computer user doesn’t have files more than 100 GB, pretty much every single computer user on the planet will now be able to afford cloud storage.

Then there remains two questions, one being philosophical, the other being political:

1. Are you comfortable with your data being in a virtual form rather than in a physical form?

2. Do you trust companies that store your data?

I think the answer to first question is starting to be “Yes!” in an increasingly common way. We don’t like to carry stuff around; it’s nice to access your data anytime anywhere without any physical representation. But even this answer depends on the second question:

It seems like people started to trust companies to store their data because they have publicly shared their commitment to user’s privacy and security. This understanding might have changed slightly with the recent celebrity photo leak. These were mostly photos stored in Apple’s iCloud and were taken by iPhones and iPads. I’m pretty sure this incident has resulted in cloud storage companies taking more preventive measures against such security threats, but I’m also tempted to think of another future solution: Private cloud solutions.

Instead of thinking like the existing cloud private solutions where your data is stored locally and can only be accessed within your own network, I’m thinking of a solution where your data is stored locally but the software used to access it is being loaded via the internet. Assuming this software is regularly updated and is secure – not the best assumption, I know – this solution would at least make us more comfortable about us owning our own data. However, technically speaking, anything accessible via the internet is vulnerable to security threats, so this doesn’t solve our problem entirely.

In conclusion, the way we have been storing our data electronically has dramatically changed over time; however, this leaves some political and philosophical questions behind that needs to be answered before such technologies become the new standard.

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