Open In App

Storage Concepts in System Design

Last Updated : 06 Mar, 2024
Like Article

In system design, storage concepts play an important role in ensuring data reliability, accessibility, and scalability. From traditional disk-based systems to modern cloud storage solutions, understanding the fundamentals of storage architecture is crucial for designing efficient and resilient systems. This article explores key storage concepts for system design.


What is Primary Memory?

Primary memory, often referred to as main memory or RAM (Random Access Memory), is a crucial component in computer systems where data and instructions are temporarily stored for immediate access by the CPU (Central Processing Unit).

  • It serves as the working memory of a computer, facilitating rapid data access and manipulation.
  • Unlike secondary storage devices such as hard drives or SSDs, primary memory is volatile, meaning its contents are lost when power is turned off.
  • Primary memory directly interacts with the CPU, enabling fast data retrieval and execution, thus playing a critical role in overall system performance.


Primary memory is divided into two main types:

  • RAM (Random Access Memory):
    • RAM is a volatile memory used by the computer to temporarily store data that the CPU needs to access quickly. It holds the data that is actively being used or processed by the CPU.
    • RAM comes in various forms such as DDR (Double Data Rate) RAM, DDR2, DDR3, DDR4, and DDR5, with each generation offering increased speed and capacity.
  • ROM (Read-Only Memory):
    • ROM is a non-volatile memory that retains its contents even when the power is turned off.
    • It is used to store firmware or boot instructions that are necessary to start up the computer system.
    • Unlike RAM, ROM is not typically used for general-purpose data storage and is often programmed during the manufacturing process.

What is Secondary Memory?

Secondary memory, also known as auxiliary memory or external memory, refers to storage devices that are used for long-term data storage in a computer system. Unlike primary memory (RAM), secondary memory is non-volatile, meaning it retains its contents even when the power is turned off. Secondary memory devices are typically slower than primary memory but offer larger storage capacities at a lower cost per unit of storage.

Examples of secondary memory devices are:

  • Hard Disk Drives (HDDs):
    • HDDs consist of rotating magnetic disks (platters) coated with magnetic material. Data is stored on these platters in the form of magnetic patterns, and read/write heads access and modify the data as needed.
    • HDDs are known for their relatively large storage capacities and cost-effectiveness but are slower than solid-state drives (SSDs).
  • Solid-State Drives (SSDs):
    • SSDs use flash memory to store data electronically. They have no moving parts, which results in faster read and write speeds compared to HDDs.
    • SSDs are more durable and energy-efficient but tend to be more expensive per gigabyte of storage.
  • Flash Drives:
    • Flash drives, also known as USB drives or thumb drives, are small, portable storage devices that use flash memory to store data.
    • They connect to computers via USB ports and offer a convenient way to transfer files between devices.
  • Optical Discs:
    • Optical discs such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs store data using optical technology.
    • They are commonly used for distributing software, music, movies, and other multimedia content.

Secondary memory serves as a long-term storage solution for files, programs, and other data that needs to be preserved beyond the duration of a single computing session. It complements primary memory by providing a larger storage capacity for less frequently accessed data and programs.

What is Virtual Memory?

Virtual memory is a memory management technique used by operating systems to provide an illusion of having more memory (RAM) than is physically available in a computer system. It allows programs to execute as if they have more memory than is actually installed on the system.

Let’s see how virtual memory works:

  • Memory Paging:
    • Virtual memory divides physical memory into fixed-size blocks called pages.
    • Similarly, it divides the storage space on the disk into blocks of the same size, known as page frames.
    • When a program requests memory, the operating system allocates space for it in virtual memory, regardless of whether the physical memory is available.
  • Page Faults:
    • When a program accesses data that is not currently in physical memory, a page fault occurs.
    • The operating system then moves the required page from the disk into physical memory.
    • If there’s no free space in physical memory, the operating system may swap out a less-used page to disk to make room for the requested page.
  • Address Translation:
    • Virtual memory relies on address translation mechanisms to map virtual addresses used by programs to physical addresses in RAM or on disk.
    • This mapping is maintained by the operating system’s memory management unit (MMU) and involves a translation table, often referred to as the page table.

Differences between Primary, Secondary and virtual memory


Primary Memory

Secondary Memory

Virtual Memory


Volatile: Contents lost when power is off

Non-volatile: Contents retained even when power is off

N/A – It is a memory management technique


Directly accessible by the CPU

Accessed indirectly, typically slower than primary memory

Accessed indirectly, typically slower than primary memory


Holds data and instructions actively used by the CPU

Used for long-term storage of data and programs

Provides an illusion of having more memory than physically available


Faster access times compared to secondary memory

Faster access times compared to virtual memory

Slower access times compared to primary memory, but faster than accessing data from secondary storage


Typically smaller capacity compared to secondary memory

Typically larger capacity compared to primary memory

Can provide an illusion of having virtually limitless memory

What is SAN Storage?

SAN (Storage Area Network) storage is a dedicated network that provides access to consolidated, block-level data storage. It is a specialized high-speed network that connects multiple storage devices, such as disk arrays or tape libraries, to servers, enabling them to access storage as if it were locally attached.

Key features of SAN storage include:

  • Block-Level Storage:
    • SAN storage operates at the block level, meaning it provides raw storage blocks to servers rather than files. This allows for more efficient and flexible data management.
  • High-Speed Connectivity:
    • SANs typically use high-speed Fibre Channel or iSCSI (Internet Small Computer System Interface) protocols to transfer data between servers and storage devices, providing fast and reliable access to storage resources.
  • Scalability:
    • SANs are highly scalable, allowing organizations to easily expand their storage capacity by adding additional storage devices to the network without disrupting existing operations.
  • Centralized Management:
    • SAN storage enables centralized management of storage resources, making it easier for administrators to allocate and manage storage across multiple servers and applications.
  • Data Protection and Disaster Recovery:
    • SANs often incorporate features such as RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) and snapshotting to provide data protection and facilitate disaster recovery efforts.
  • Storage Virtualization:
    • Some SANs offer storage virtualization capabilities, allowing administrators to abstract physical storage resources into virtual pools that can be dynamically allocated to servers as needed.

What is RAID and Volume?


RAID is a storage technology that combines multiple physical disk drives into a single logical unit to improve data reliability, availability, and performance. There are several RAID levels, each offering different configurations for data redundancy, striping, and parity.

Common RAID levels include:

  • RAID 0: Striping without redundancy, offering increased performance but no fault tolerance.
  • RAID 1: Mirroring, where data is duplicated across two drives for redundancy.
  • RAID 5: Striping with distributed parity, providing a balance of performance and fault tolerance.
  • RAID 6: Similar to RAID 5 but with double distributed parity, offering increased fault tolerance.
  • RAID 10 (or RAID 1+0): Combines mirroring and striping for both performance and redundancy.

RAID arrays can be implemented using hardware RAID controllers or software RAID configurations provided by the operating system or storage management software.

2. Volume

A volume refers to a logical storage unit that spans one or more physical disks or RAID arrays. Volumes are typically created and managed by the operating system or storage management software.

Volumes can be used for various purposes, including:

  • Organizing data into manageable units for storage and retrieval.
  • Providing file systems with a logical space for storing files and directories.
  • Implementing RAID configurations to improve data reliability and performance.

Volumes can span single or multiple physical disks, and they can be configured with different RAID levels to meet specific requirements for performance, redundancy, and capacity.

Storage Options in the Cloud

These cloud-based solutions offer diverse functionalities catering to different data storage requirements, ensuring scalability, accessibility, and reliability. Here are some key storage options in the cloud:

  • Object Storage:
    • Leading the pack is object storage, a versatile solution designed for storing vast amounts of unstructured data such as images, videos, and documents.
    • Services like Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage, and Azure Blob Storage provide highly scalable and durable storage repositories, ideal for applications requiring extensive data storage and retrieval.
  • Block Storage:
    • For applications demanding high-performance storage with low-latency access, block storage fits the bill.
    • Cloud platforms offer block storage services like Amazon EBS and Azure Disk Storage, providing persistent block-level storage volumes that can be attached to virtual machines.
    • This option is commonly employed for databases and transactional workloads.
  • File Storage:
    • Cloud file storage services, including Amazon EFS, Google Cloud Filestore, and Azure Files, cater to scenarios requiring shared file systems accessible via standard file protocols.
    • These services facilitate collaborative work environments, content management systems, and applications necessitating shared file access across multiple users and instances.
  • Hybrid Cloud Storage:
    • Organizations seeking a balance between on-premises and cloud storage infrastructures can opt for hybrid cloud storage solutions.
    • These solutions seamlessly integrate on-premises storage environments with cloud storage services, enabling data mobility, scalability, and flexibility across hybrid environments.
  • Database Storage:
    • Cloud database services provide managed storage solutions optimized for various database engines such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, and SQL Server.
    • These services offer automated backups, scalability, and high availability, simplifying storage management for database workloads.

Like Article
Suggest improvement
Share your thoughts in the comments

Similar Reads