Hard-working drives: How floods in Thailand affect us all

Twelve years ago, I remember buying a 60GB external hard drive for the staggering price of $600.

I thought I would never fill it and tried to cram it with video clips and large TIFF scans. Despite by best efforts it took about a year to outgrow it and by then I was astonished at the price drop for that same 60GB drive.

So I bought a couple more.

Today I treat my rather large collection of 2TB hard drives - HDDs - as if they are slightly heavier floppy discs from the 1990s.

I pop them in and out of HDD docks all day long and have multiple copies of personal photographs, video clips and documents. The files are often huge.

High-definition video files take up a lot of room, as does the constant stream of gigantic images from my SLR camera and thousands of raw scans of my old family slides.

Image caption The humble hard drive is vital not only to computer manufacturers, but to anything electronic

These alone are nearly half a gigabyte for each image. It shows that the need or desire to store ones and zeros has grown exponentially in a very short amount of time.

Back it up

The hard drive industry has always been quick to oblige.

There's even a "official" day set aside to promote backing up hard drives - you just missed this year's event - it was on March 31st, but don't let that stop you from duplicating all your crucial data across to at least one other drive immediately.

Losing terabytes of data is not much fun. I've learned my lesson. I lost 500GB of digital "stuff" shortly after hearing a scraping sound coming from an external drive in 2005.

I remember the day vividly. Once it happens, you never forget. I've had several more breakdowns since but backups have come to the rescue and saved my life - my digital one anyway.

Image caption Even this sewing machine is dependent on a hard drive to function

And when something like the Thai floods happens, it's startling to realise just how much we have all come to rely on hard drives.

Every time you download a song from a service like iTunes or Spotify, every time you upload documents to Evernote or Google, every time you post to Facebook or Flickr, you are reading from or writing data to a hard drive somewhere on planet earth.

But we never think about the physical location of the file anymore. Storage is so ubiquitous, we now take it completely for granted.

In our homes, apart from the obvious PC towers and laptops, hard drives can be found inside a wide variety of consumer electronics.

Image caption Industrial estates and factories across Thailand were inundated with flood waters, causing the supply chain to grind to a halt

They can be found in a DVR - a set top box for recording TV shows, or camcorders that capture a baby's first steps or gaming consoles that keep teenagers up until the small hours.

They can even be found in sewing machines which are now capable of downloading and storing patterns and apps. It would be really hard to have fun without HDDs.

Size does matter

Consequently the race to increase capacity is ongoing. Drives today use a system called perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR) which allows the bits of data to be arranged upright on the platter - but within a few years the maximum capacity of the process will be reached.

Seagate recently announced a plan to put 60 terabytes on a single drive with a process called heat assisted magnetic recording (HAMR). They hope to do it within the next 10 years or so. It was once thought of as being completely impossible.

Image caption Western Digital were just one of the manufacturers badly affected

Solid state drives (SSDs) have proved themselves to be worthy competitors in situations that demand speedy start up times or extended battery life.

Although the cost of SSDs is falling they are still more expensive than HDDs per gigabyte which make them difficult to consider for bulk storage needs. For the moment their relatively small capacities make them best suited for smartphones, tablets and laptops.

And when cloud services first appeared they seemed to point to a gradual reduction of hard drives in the home.

Why keep a crucial backup next to the computer when it can be stored in multiple locations simultaneously off base and protected from fires, floods and even terrorists?

But reality quickly set it, certainly in the US.

The tiny number of companies supplying internet access here keeps prices high and speeds low. Where I live in Manhattan we have the choice of...wait for company's data pipe. Take it or leave it.

So any kind of back up is usually more efficient between hardware situated in the same room.

Then you have to factor in the month-to-month cost of personal cloud solutions. They usually work out pretty expensive long term compared to just owning your own HDDs.

So I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that hard drives will be around for a long long time and I for one am very happy about that!