When the Record Starts Spinnin’


60 years ago when Danny & The Juniors were getting ready to record “At the Hop,” IBM was spinning their own brand of records.

It was early days in the computer revolution. A business computer was room sized, its cabinets had thousands of cable connections and still used vacuum tubes. COBOL and FORTRAN were languages of the future. Programming was done in machine code, sometimes by plugging in jumper cables on a plugboard panel. But IBM’s major problem was storing and retrieving data in real time. Data was stored on magnetic tape or kept in boxes of paper punch cards and it took a fair bit of time to read it into the computer and get a report printed out.

IBM solved the problem with its RAMAC 350 hard drive unit. RAMAC 350 used metal platters not all that different from today, although it was the size of a refrigerator and had a total storage¬†capacity of 4 Megabytes – about the same as a couple of JPEG photos today. IBM could have built a bigger RAMAC but its marketing department couldn’t see how they could sell more storage than 4 MB.

Along with the RAMAC 305 computer, the hard drive was a big winner for IBM – Chrysler immediately bought one for its parts inventory, and a RAMAC kept track of performances at the 1960 Olympics.

And so began one of the longest successful runs of any piece of equipment in IT – the hard drive got smaller and faster and by 1980 you could put a 3.5 inch, 10 MB drive into the early IBM PCs. Today the largest mechanical hard drive can store 10 million times as much as that 1980 platter. It’s hard to imagine our digital photo and video collections without one.

But all good things must end, and it now appears that the typical 3.5 inch desktop drive or 2.5 inch laptop drive will be phased out in the not too distant future. It’s successor – the Solid State Drive – either in traditional laptop size or the latest M.2 format¬†which is the size of a stick of gum. The reason – seek time primarily.

Seek time refers to the average time it takes for a hard drive to find the data you need. RAMAC 350 had a seek time of 600 milliseconds. Today’s good desktop drives have reduced that to 9 milliseconds. Not bad in 60 years I guess. But an SSD has a seek time of 0.08 milliseconds right now – and it’s just getting warmed up. SSDs are so fast now that they have outrun the ability of cables to transmit the data, and they are now plugged into the motherboard of a PC just like a video card.

Mechanical hard drives are still useful when you want to store tons of data and you can put up with a bit slower retrieval – SSDs haven’t got the same massive capacity quite yet. And SSDs are still more expensive to buy. However the zippy performance and much greater ability to withstand bumps and bruises have made them the storage unit of choice in tablets, smartphones and increasingly in laptops. Even desktops benefit from using an SSD as a boot drive.

Poor old Danny and his Juniors. The DJ At the Hop in 2016 would likely play their song as an MP3 from an SSD. Doesn’t quite have the same lyrical feel does it? “When the Drive starts Flashin’..” Uh…no.


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