The future of data storage

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One of the consequences of our increased use of broadband is a sharp increase in the amount of data we store outside of our homes and businesses. The numbers are becoming mind-boggling. About 3.7 billion people currently use the Internet, and together we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data online every day. The trend is that by 2025, we’ll be storing 160 zettabytes of data per year – one zettabyte equals one trillion gigabytes.

I am storing a lot more data online than before. I now store things in the cloud all day. When I edit a Word or Excel file, my changes are all stored in the cloud. I also save all the changes on my computer every day. I write and store blogs on a WordPress server. Copies of my blogs are automatically published and stored on Twitter and LinkedIn. My company’s accounting records are kept online. When my car enters a driveway, it downloads diagnostics to the cloud. The photos I take on my cell phone are automatically saved. I have no idea what is shared and saved by the apps and software that I use regularly. Just a few years ago I had very little interaction with the cloud, but now I apparently live and work in the cloud.

It might be hard to believe, but for the foreseeable future we will be facing a data storage crisis. We cannot afford the resources to be able to store data the same way we do today. Data centers now consume nearly 20% of the electricity used by technology. A single data center uses more electricity than a small town. We are consuming power generation resources and releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide so that we can record the 45 photos taken at the birthday party you attended last night.

One of the obvious solutions to the challenge of data storage is throwing the data away. But who decides what is kept? The alternative is to find better methods of storing data that don’t require as much power or take up so much space. There are several areas of research for better storage – none are ready for prime time just yet, but the ideas are intriguing.

5D optical storage

Researchers at the University of Southampton are exploring data storage using lasers to etch silicon glass cubes. The technique is called 5F, because in addition to using the three normal axes as storage parameters, they also use the size of a recorded recording and the orientation. Think of it as a 3D version of how we used to store data on compact discs. This technology would be used for long term storage since something that is etched into the glass is permanent. Storing data in glass requires no power and the glass cubes are nearly indestructible. A small cube could store hundreds of terabytes of data.

Cold room

Researchers at the University of Manchester take a different approach and examine the benefits of storing data in extremely cold temperatures. They have developed artificial molecules capable of storing several hundred times more data than in the equivalent space of current hard drives. The key is to store molecules at a low temperature. This is the same research group that discovered graphene and that works with unique molecular structures. Scientists know that storage at lower temperatures can work, and the big breakthrough is to run this technology at 80 Kelvin using liquid nitrogen (which is significantly hotter than previous near absolute zero work using liquid helium). Since our atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, frozen gas is inexpensive to produce. Scientists hope that molecules will be able to store data for a long time, even when power is lost.

DNA storage

For more than a decade, scientists have been intrigued by the use of DNA as a storage medium. DNA could be an ideal storage medium because it is made from our base pair amino acids, and the coiled coiled structure provides great storage capacity in a condensed space. A Harvard team was able to store the code for a video on a strand of bacterial DNA. Since then, the Catalog trading company has been working on perfecting the technology. The company believes it is close to a breakthrough using a synthetic version of a DNA molecule rather than living tissue. Data could be written into the molecule as it is assembled. As with etched glass, this is a permanent and very promising storage. Over the past summer, the company announced that it was able to save the full 16 gigabytes of Wikipedia in a small vial of material.

We need these and other technologies to work if we don’t want to be bogged down in our own data.

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