In the world of computer storage devices, there are many different types that serve different purposes. When it comes to long-term data storage and access, one of the most common types is the hard disk drive (HDD). Hard disk drives store data on quickly rotating platters coated in magnetic material, allowing data to be written to and read from the drive rapidly. So to answer the question directly:
The storage device that is a set of disk platters is a hard disk drive (HDD).
Hard disk drives have been a staple of long-term data storage since the 1950s, and still offer benefits like large capacities and low cost per gigabyte compared to alternatives like solid state drives (SSDs). Let’s take a deeper look at what hard disk drives are and what makes their platter-based storage unique.
What is a Hard Disk Drive?
A hard disk drive is composed of one or more flat, circular platters made of an aluminum or glass substrate coated with a thin magnetic material. These platters rotate at high speeds, typically 5400 or 7200 RPM in modern drives. Read/write heads mounted on actuator arms hover just above the disk surface to magnetically record data onto the platters or detect changes in magnetic orientation to read data.
The platters are paired with the read/write heads to make up a sealed assembly called the head disk assembly (HDA). The HDA is protected inside the drive housing, which includes logic boards and interfaces to connect the drive to a computer. Together, these components allow data to be stored in the magnetic coatings of the platters and retrieved reliably at fast speeds when needed.
Key Components of a Hard Disk Drive
- Platters – The thin, flat, circular disks that data is stored on. Made of non-magnetic material like aluminum or glass and coated with a thin layer of magnetic material.
- Read/Write Heads – Devices that can detect and modify the magnetization of platter surfaces to read or write data.
- Spindle – Rotates the platters at high speed during operation, typically 5400 or 7200 RPM.
- Actuator Arms – Position read/write heads over specific tracks on the platter surfaces.
- Logic Board – Contains controller electronics that process data and monitor drive operation.
- Interfaces – Allow communication between the drive and computer, usually SATA or SAS interfaces today.
- Sealed Housing – Protects internal components from dust and debris.
How Hard Disk Drives Store Data
Hard disk drives are able to store and retrieve data quickly thanks to the magnetic coatings on their platters and the operation of the read/write heads.
Each platter surface is formatted into concentric tracks divided into sectors. By changing the magnetic orientations of tiny portions of the coating using the read/write heads, 1s and 0s of binary data can be encoded. The drive controller processes this data in blocks called sectors, typically 512 bytes or 4 kilobytes in size.
The granular transitions between magnetic orientations allow very dense storage of data on the platters. Modern 3.5″ desktop hard drives can achieve densities of up to 2 terabits per square inch.
A drive encodes data using parallel magnetic orientations in each sector, going from north to south pole to represent 1s and 0s. Encoding methods like longitudinal recording or the more modern perpendicular recording allow high bit densities.
Logical Block Addressing
The drive’s controller assigns each sector a logical block address (LBA) to reference its location on the drive without complex physical addressing. The operating system indexes files in file tables based on LBAs.
Reading and Writing Data
To write data, the actuator arm positions a read/write head over the correct track and the write element generates a magnetic field that orients the granular coating to encode 1s and 0s. To read data, the head senses changes in magnetization and generates a small current that gets decoded into 1s and 0s.
The Benefits of Platter-Based Storage
Hard disk drives dominated the consumer storage space for decades, and while solid state drives are taking over as the primary storage in computers, HDDs still have unique benefits thanks to their platter-based design:
- Large capacities – HDDs are available in huge multi-terabyte capacities thanks to the dense data storage platters provide.
- Sequential performance – HDDs quickly stream large files like videos due to their high sequential read/write bandwidth.
- Low cost-per-gigabyte – HDD manufacturing processes keep per-gigabyte costs very low compared to SSDs.
- Proven reliability – Time-tested HDD designs when used appropriately provide dependable long-term data storage.
For massive data storage needs like data centers and backups, hard disk drives are still a top choice to deliver large capacities cost-effectively. The sequentially-accessible platter media is also well-suited for streaming large files and analyzing big data.
Use Cases for Hard Disk Drives
Some of the most common applications for hard disk drives that take advantage of their strengths include:
1. Data Centers
Data centers need massive, affordable data storage, and HDDs are the top choice for huge centralized storage farms. Their space and power efficiency for high capacities makes them ideal for data center storage needs.
2. Cloud Storage
Major cloud storage providers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft rely heavily on high-capacity HDDs for cost-effective storage behind internet cloud services.
3. Network Attached Storage (NAS)
Network attached storage devices and RAID arrays commonly use multiple HDDs to provide shared access to large storage pools over a local network.
4. Backup Storage
HDDs provide affordable and easily scalable on-site backup storage for protecting data against loss or disasters. Their sequential speeds work well for complete system backups.
5. Surveillance Systems
The large video files generated by surveillance systems are readily stored long-term on HDDs for system recording and archiving functions.
6. Gaming Consoles
Gaming consoles often use 2.5″ HDDs for game storage and system software, taking advantage of the combination of capacity, sequential performance and low cost.
Comparing HDDs to Solid State Drives
The other major type of long-term storage device is solid state drives (SSDs) based on non-volatile flash memory chips rather than magnetic platters. While HDDs dominated the market for decades, SSDs are now the preferred primary storage in computers due to benefits like:
- Faster random access performance
- Far superior reliability and shock resistance
- Lower access latencies
- Lighter weight and lower power draw
However, hard disk drives still excel in other areas that make them highly viable for large data storage needs. Key advantages HDDs have over SSDs are:
- Significantly lower cost per gigabyte
- Ability to offer much higher maximum capacities
- Higher sequential read/write bandwidth
For applications that need fast boot times and response but don’t require hundreds of terabytes of storage, SSDs are likely the best fit. But HDDs are still often ideal for high capacity needs at lower costs.
|Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
|Solid State Drive (SSD)
|Flash memory chips
|Cost Per Gigabyte
|Higher than HDDs
|14+ TB common
|Typically <= 16 TB
|Random Access Speed
|Slower than SSDs
|Fast for large files
|Lower with SLC flash
Hard disk drives that store data on magnetized spinning platters have been the dominant form of long-term data storage since the 1950s. HDDs offer excellent performance for sequential data access, very high maximum capacities, proven reliability and low cost per gigabyte. These factors continue to make HDDs ideal for high capacity applications like data centers, NAS devices, backups and surveillance systems.
While HDD technology is mature, increasing areal densities through innovations like microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) and two-dimensional magnetic recording (TDMR) will push capacities even higher in the future. And with their strengths in cost and capacity, hard disk drives still have an important role to play even as solid state drives take over as primary computer storage.