Magnetic disk drives might take a back seat to flash storage these days, but without them there would be no cloud computing, and today's IT landscape would look very different.
To celebrate this fact, a Finnish group has awarded €1m to a man who helped make commercial disk drives possible — and who now hopes to supplant flash with something better.
British-born professor Stuart Parkin has been awarded this year's Millennium Technology Prize for his discoveries in the nanotechnology field of spintronics, that helped give birth to today's disk drive industry and provided the underpinnings for cloud computing, big data, and just about anything that relies on large amounts of storage.
The prize is awarded by the Technology Academy of Finland in partnership with the Finnish state every two years. Parkin joins 'father of the web' Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Linux kernel inventor Linus Torvalds, who took the prestigious prize in 2010 and 2012 respectively.
Parkin's application of spintronic materials, which IBM commercialised in the 1990s, led to "a prodigious growth in the capacity to store digital information", according to the selection committee, and "greatly facilitated the occurrence of the 'big data' revolution".
Spintronics relies on the magnetic spin of electrons rather than their charge to store bits. Parkin's work built on the "giant magnetoresistive" (GMR) effect discovered in 1988 by European researchers Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert. The pair produced large resistance changes in materials made up of alternating thin layers of different metallic elements.
The problem, as IBM Research explains, was that the method used to produce the GRM effect wasn't suitable for commercialisation and relied on expensive machinery to produce the effect.
"Parkin and his colleague, Kevin P Roche, tried a faster and less-precise process common in disk-drive manufacturing: sputtering. To their astonishment and delight, it worked," IBM said.
GMR made its debut in 1997 in IBM's 16.8GB Deskstar hard disk for desktops in the form of a GMR 'spin valve'. At the time, IBM's hard disk was record-breaking. Of course today, the only place anyone can find a disk with that little space is on smartphones, which rely on faster but more expensive flash memory.
But Parkin may have the answer for that too. One of his more recent inventions is 'racetrack memory', which promises to overcome some of the constraints of flash, including price, capacity and the speed of writing to disk. Again, the method relies on the spin of electrons but instead of moving them around a a two-dimensional structure, it's done around "skyscrapers of magnetic material".
Racetrack memory is yet to be commercialised, but if and when it is, as IBM points out, it could give device storage a much bigger place in the internet of things in future.
IBM envisages devices with racetrack memory "could fit into a lapel pin and record every conversation its wearer has for years before filling up. In enterprises, massive storage could be dispersed, with terabytes of information built into every device, sensor, camera and doorknob."
Parkin will receive the €1m prize at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland on 7 May.