I've never really understood what this icon, that looks like an oil drum

Database icon, from The Noun Project

and is commonly used to refer to a database, is actually supposed to represent.

What is it?

As a matter of fact, I've been searching for any kind of reading material about the history of the symbols commonly used in web app icons and haven't come up with anything helpful or interesting. Is there a good resource to read up on that?

  • 1
    three cans of chewing tobacco, alas not seen in workplaces anymore due to the tobacco-free laws. It means: you have to stay up late to fix the problems with the database, and you are not allowed to smoke in the machine room. – user67695 Aug 25 '16 at 22:22
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It represents a stack of hard disks. For example, from wikipedia:

"RAID diagram icon symbolizing the array of disks"

enter image description here

Yes, this is talking about hard disks but the basic concept is the same.

  • Thanks. I'm still not clear on what/why it is what it is, but at least I get there's some kind of real world thing being referred to. – goldenapples Jan 12 '13 at 5:53
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    Nothing to do with RAID. The depiction goes way further back than the emergence of RAID. Well back into at least the early eighties of last century and probably even further. – Marjan Venema Jan 12 '13 at 8:15
  • @MarjanVenema yeah I know but it was the most relevant visual I could find that made the point – jlarson Jan 12 '13 at 19:11
  • Answer by a younger person who doesn't remember the original context. See user67695's answer, below, which I've edited to include pictures. See this image, or google "database stack platters". – Arcane Engineer Sep 14 at 12:05

It is a picture of a "disk pack" which is a stack of platters (usually 14 inch diameter) in a removable set. The original hard drives were the size of a washing machine, and had these swap-able packs. They had a clear plastic cover with a handle in the center, much like a cake carrier. You plopped it on to the drive, turned the handle to remove the cover, and then closed a door over the pack to enable the drive.

Amazing that people no longer know what they looked like. I made a clock where the dial was one of these big platters on which the head had crashed, leaving concentric marks in the orange surface (iron oxide). Of course, I had to be different, so I used a 168 hour motor and the "clock" showed the days of the week. Those synchronous motors are probably long gone also. They used to run all the stop lights.

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • Note distinction between "drive" and "disks" (platters). They didn't used to be one item, as today. The drive was a standalone unit, a motor and control mechanisms that spun platters & moved arms. In the 1970s when this icon started being used to represent databases in IS, (micro)computers lacked fixed secondary storage, and ran off main memory and temporary (floppy) storage. Mainframes, OTOH, were the go-to for any real computing, and had these large precursors to modern hard disks. Approximated as the physical incarnation of the DB; software was often bespoke before standardisation. – Arcane Engineer Sep 14 at 12:25

Historical reasons. It's just a simplified depiction of an actual hard disk. Remember that a single hard drive is actually made up of a stack of flat disks with the read/write heads in between the disks. A simpler depiction would be just a cylinder without the horizontal bands.

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