Moore and Me

One of the many ways in which I’ve had a lucky life is that I grew up with Moore’s law. I became aware of computing hardware just about the time the integrated circuit came on the scene. From high school to college to graduate school and into my work life I have for the most part ridden the curve that the hardware people have so generously provided for those of us who work in software.

Every once in a while when I am feeling nostalgic I think back on what all of this means, and the power of the exponential function never fails to amaze. But what amazes me even more than how chips have scaled is how storage has scaled, especially since storage usually involves moving parts. Advances in disk storage have probably been more responsible than anything else for expanding the ways in which we use the machines, especially for media applications.

So here are a few random comparisons:

1. When I started at CMU as a freshman in 1983 (it might have actually been 1985), 1GB of disk space took up eight racks in a machine room. Twenty five years later, 16GB of disk fits on a keychain. This can store enough video to keep someone busy for a ten hour car ride. That’s around 10 to 15 full DVD movies if you don’t need to store anything else.

2. Back in one of my early jobs in the mid 90s, we studied a book called Managing Gigabyes, as if a gigabyte was a huge amount of storage. These days, when I pack for a trip, I put more than a terabyte of storage into my backpack to hold pictures, music, video and so on. For the record, here is the list: 320GB disk in laptop, 320GB external USB drive for backup, 500GB external USB drive for backup #2, point and shoot camera with 8GB flash card, digital SLR with 8GB of flash, 8GB of storage on iPhone. Total storage: 1164GB.

3. Twenty years ago you’d have to carry around ten or twenty pounds of bulky video equipment to record an hour of crappy home video on tape. And then you had do deal with the tape. Now you shoot that same video with an HD video camera that fits in your pocket and when you are done it will upload the movie to Youtube for you.

Storage has gotten so ubiquitous and so large that we barely think about it anymore. We take it for granted that we can walk around with 100GB of data in our pants. A few more generations and a laptop will have enough disk to allow you to store your entire life without ever deleting anything. Well, maybe not if you record every waking second in HD video, but close.

People have said for a long time that this ride was going to end soon, and although we are starting to see some of this with respect to CPU clock speeds, storage doesn’t seem to be slowing down. I wonder what I’ll be able to store on a keychain in ten years. Maybe the whole web, and the google index to go with it.