March 23, 2012

Looking Backward: The First Hard Drive

Robert Gelber

The latest big data developments typically incorporate advancements in one or more of the three V’s.: velocity, variety and volume. When following new discoveries and understanding how vendors tackle production issues, it warrants a look back to technologies that made the breakthroughs of today possible.

 ;This week Rupert Goodwins located a seriously retro video depicting a 1950’s IBM PR presentation discussed creation of the first hard drive, known as the RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control).

The video begins by explaining a common theme in today’s enterprise climate. “In businesses large and small. One of the greatest problems is getting the facts and figures for making daily decisions.” It then goes on to explain the research and development of the RAMAC in San Jose, an effort that took more than 300,000 working hours to solve. ;

A rented store in the city served as the R&D facility. Recently graduate engineers from west coast institutions were interviewed and hired to assist with the “paper blizzard” faced in business filing rooms. The challenges researchers discovered were massive paper records requiring constant reporting and updating.

Their discovery helped whittle down the needs of a file system to three jobs: storage, processing and reporting. Beyond these tasks, the solution had to work in real-time. Their goals were set, but current technology was not a viable fit for the project ‘s needs.

The team realized a tape-based product would introduce too much latency. Looking for alternatives, the suggestion was made to cover a disc similar to a vinyl record, with magnetic paint. The data could be read or written through the use of a magnetic arm, or head.

Development on the disk-based system had begun, and with it came issues like creating an efficient head, deciding if the platters should stack horizontally vs. vertically and best practices to coat the platters with magnetic paint. ; The size of the platters also challenged researchers to design a system that could fit through a door. ; ;  ;

Once the hard disk technology was created, the next phase of product development, which was collaboration between planners and engineers. Cost played a major role in deciding which features were necessary or expendable. The result was a device that contained 50 24”, 1,200 RPM disks accessed by a head which used a pneumatic pump to move over the platters. As far as capacity, the RAMAC could store a whopping 5 million characters or roughly 5MB.

In closing the vid, a gentleman hands a paper to Miss Davis who is controlling the RAMAC. The request is asking for the stock status of Westor yellow toasters. The system blinks “reader ready” and she begins the query. Two quick shots of the head checking platters and a series of blinking lights are followed by the RAMAC printing out the answer on an automated typewriter.

The story is very telling on multiple levels. Detailed explanation of research and development is something most vendors are not willing to divulge to the public or their competition. Also the manufacturing facility was located just miles away from the prototype site, which displayed a respect companies still had for building products close to home.  ; ;

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