Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2010s: The Decade in Review

The 3 biggest storage advances of the 2010s

It may be to remember, but 10 years ago our storage options were much less convenient - and way more expensive. Here's my top 3 picks for the most consequential storage of the last decade.

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I've been looking at storage technology for over 40 years, beginning with choosing mass storage for the original Apple ][ I bought in 1978. $800 for a 140KB floppy, or $50 for a Panasonic cassette deck? Yep, I bought the cassette deck, which taught me the meaning of random access storage. 

Every decade since, the pace of change in storage has accelerated, and the 'teens were no exception. Drive that change are 3 key technologies.

Flash storage

The first time I wrote about flash memory for ZDNet, one reader complained that he was expecting to hear about Adobe Flash, the now obsolete graphics standard. No one makes that mistake today!

Flash was invented in the 1980s by Toshiba, whose storage division was spun off last year as Kioxia. Flash was slow to take off because, as a semiconductor, it took decades to build the volumes that allowed costs to drop. In 1991, I paid $400 for a 10MB Compact Flash card - $40/MB - for my favorite notebook of all time, the HP Omnibook 300. 

Flash enabled the iPhone, and replaced 8mm magnetic video tapes - I still have a drawer full - and pretty much killed 35mm film cameras. As the industry invested billions in new fabs, the price has continued to decline, making flash the dominant solid state storage in the world today.

SSDs

It wasn't until circa 2005 that flash became as cheap as DRAM, and that's when designers woke up to its potential in the data center, where FusionIO's fast but costly PCIe SSDs were popular. But the disastrous floods in Thailand in 2011, which destroyed almost half of the world's hard drive production capacity, forced a spike in HDD prices that suddenly made flash SSDs look relatively affordable. 

While Apple led the charge to SSDs, offering them in the first MacBook Air back in 2008, it was the spike in HDD prices that made many people realize that despite their high price per GB, SSDs really improved their system performance. With their widespread adoption in even entry level machines, the market for client side HDDs collapsed, with volumes dropping for the last five years. 

But fear not, HDDs, like tape, will continue to have a home in data centers for decades to come. They are still significantly cheaper than flash SSDs per GB, which is what will keep the cloud vendors buying them.

Cloud

The biggest storage story of the teens was the advent of cloud storage, along with cloud infrastructure. Cloud has dramatically reduced the business and technology friction of acquiring and managing IT infrastructure.

Cloud has had knock-on effects in several areas:
- Cloud has took the wind out of the once-robust storage array market. EMC, once the behemoth of data storage, sold itself to Dell. The remaining independents, especially startups, tend to focus on either direct sales to the cloud giants, or selling cloud-like infrastructure to enterprises.
- Cloud has made storage advances largely proprietary and hidden. When you are operating at 10000x the scale of major enterprises, employ armies of PhDs, and control your entire stack, there is no reason to share tech discoveries.
- Likewise, suppliers make investments, such as in 100GB Blu-ray discs, that seem unjustified by consumer demand. I call this the shadow IT market.

Cloud has made data infrastructure a utility. Just as we don't know where the power in our homes comes from, neither do we know where much of our computing takes place, especially for mobile devices. Cloud won't replace on premise systems totally, but it is highly competitive.

The Storage Bits take

As vast as these changes have been, the 20's will dwarf them. More on that later. Happy New Year!

Comments welcome!