The Future of Data Storage

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

I store a lot more data online than I used to. I now store things in the cloud all day long. When I edit a Word or Excel file, my changes are all stored in the cloud. I also back up every change on my computer every day. I write and store these blogs on a WordPress server. Copies of my blogs are automatically posted and stored on Twitter and LinkedIn. My company’s accounting records are stored online. When my car pulls into a driveway, it uploads diagnostics into the cloud. Pictures I take on my cellphone are automatically saved. I have no idea what else is being shared and saved by apps and software that I routinely use. As recently as a few years ago, I had very little interaction with the cloud, but I now seemingly live and work in the cloud.

It may be hard to believe, but in the foreseeable future, we’ll be facing a data storage crisis. We can’t afford the resources to be able to store data in the same way we do today. Data centers now use nearly 20% of the electricity used by technology. A single data center uses more electricity than a small town. We’re consuming electric generation resources and spinning off huge amounts of carbon dioxide to be able to save the 45 pictures taken at the birthday party you attended last night.

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

5D Optical Storage.

Researchers at the University of Southampton are exploring data storage using lasers to etch into cubes of silicon glass. The technique is being called 5F, because in addition to using the normal three axes as storage parameters they are also using the size of a recorded record and the orientation. Think of this as a 3D version of the way we used to store data on compact disks. 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. One small cube could store hundreds of terabytes of data.

Cold Storage.

Researchers at the University of Manchester are taking a different approach and looking at the benefits of storing data at super-cold temperatures. They have developed man-made molecules that can store several hundred times more data than in the equivalent space on current hard drives. The key is to store the molecules at low temperatures. This is the same research group that discovered graphene and that works with unique molecular structures. Scientists have known that storage at lower temperatures can work, and the big breakthrough is having this technology work at 80 Kelvin using liquid nitrogen (which is significantly warmer than past work near to absolute zero using liquid helium). Since our atmosphere is mostly nitrogen the frozen gas is inexpensive to produce. Scientists are hoping that the molecules will be able to store data for a long time, even if losing power.

DNA Storage. Scientists have been intrigued for over a decade about using DNA as a storage medium. DNA could be an idea storage media because it’s made from our base-pair amino acids, and the convoluted coiled structure provides a lot of storage capacity in a condensed space. A team at Harvard was able to store the code for a video on a strand of bacterial DNA. Since then, the commercial company Catalog has been working to perfect the technology. The company believes it is close to a breakthrough by using a synthetic version of a DNA molecule rather than living tissue. Data could be written to the molecule as it’s being assembled. Like with etched glass, this is permanent storage and highly promising. In the past summer, the company announced it was able to record the full 16 Gigabytes of Wikipedia into a tiny vial of the material.

We need these technologies and others to work if we don’t want to drown in our own data.