How Removable Storage Works

By: Jeff Tyson

Magnetic: Direct Access

In the illustration above, you can see how the disk is divided into tracks (brown) and sectors (yellow).

Magnetic disks or cartridges have a few things in common:

  • They use a thin plastic or metal base material coated with iron oxide.
  • They can record information instantly.
  • They can be erased and reused many times.
  • They are reasonably inexpensive and easy to use.

If you have ever used an audio cassette, you know that it has one big disadvantage -- it is a sequential device. The tape has a beginning and an end, and to move the tape to later song you have to use the fast forward and rewind buttons to find the start of the song. This is because the tape heads are stationary.


A disk or cartridge, like a cassette tape, is made from a thin piece of plastic coated with magnetic material on both sides. However, it is shaped like a disk rather than a long, thin ribbon. The tracks are arranged in concentric rings so the software can jump from "file 1" to "file 19" without having to fast forward through files 2 through 18. The disk or cartridge spins like a record and the heads move to the correct track, providing what is known as direct-access storage. Some removable devices actually have a platter of magnetic disks, similar to the set-up in a hard drive. Tape is still used for some long-term storage, such as backing up a server's hard drive, in which quick access to the data is not essential.

The read/write heads ("writing" is saving new information to the storage media) do not touch the media when the heads are traveling between tracks. There is normally some type of mechanism that you can set to protect a disk or cartridge from being written to. For example, electronic optics check for the presence of an opening in the lower corner of a 3.5-inch diskette (or a notch in the side of a 5.25-inch diskette) to see if the user wants to prevent data from being written to it.