Computer data storage, often called storage or memory, refers to computer components and recording media that retain digital data used for computing for some interval of time. Computer data storage provides one of the core functions of the modern computer, that of information retention. It is one of the fundamental components of all modern computers, and coupled with a central processing unit (CPU, a processor), implements the basic computer model used since the 1940s.

Many different forms of storage, based on various natural phenomena, have been invented. So far, no practical universal storage medium exists, and all forms of storage have some drawbacks. Therefore a computer system usually contains several kinds of storage, each with an individual purpose.

Primary storage

(or main memory or internal memory), often referred to simply as memory, is the only one directly accessible to the CPU. The CPU continuously reads instructions stored there and executes them as required. Any data actively operated on is also stored there in uniform manner.

Secondary storage

(or external memory) differs from primary storage in that it is not directly accessible by the CPU. The computer usually uses its input/output channels to access secondary storage and transfers the desired data using intermediate area in primary storage. Secondary storage does not lose the data when the device is powered down-it is non-volatile. Per unit, it is typically also two orders of magnitude less expensive than primary storage. Consequently, modern computer systems typically have two orders of magnitude more secondary storage than primary storage and data is kept for a longer time there. Some other examples of secondary storage technologies are: flash memory (e.g. USB flash drives or keys), floppy disks, magnetic tape, paper tape, punched cards, standalone RAM disks, and Iomega Zip drives.

Tertiary storage

or tertiary memory, provides a third level of storage. Typically it involves a robotic mechanism which will mount (insert) and dismount removable mass storage media into a storage device according to the system's demands; this data is often copied to secondary storage before use. This is primarily useful for extraordinarily large data stores, accessed without human operators. Typical examples include tape libraries and optical jukeboxes.

Off-line storage

is a computer data storage on a medium or a device that is not under the control of a processing unit. The medium is recorded, usually in a secondary or tertiary storage device, and then physically removed or disconnected. It must be inserted or connected by a human operator before a computer can access it again. Unlike tertiary storage, it cannot be accessed without human interaction. Examples are Optical discs and flash memory devices.


A NAS unit is a computer connected to a network that only provides file-based data storage services to other devices on the network. Although it may technically be possible to run other software on a NAS unit, it is not designed to be a general purpose server. For example, NAS units usually do not have a keyboard or display, and are controlled and configured over the network, often using a browser.


A storage area network (SAN) is an architecture to attach remote computer data storage devices (such as disk arrays, tape libraries, and optical jukeboxes) to servers in such a way that the devices appear as locally attached to the operating system. A SAN typically has its own network of storage devices that are generally not accessible through the regular network by regular devices.