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What do crystals, glass and DNA have in common?

DNA, glass and crystal have an unexpected common link – they are all innovative new ways to meet the growing demand to store vast amounts of data

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According to IDC, which has been predicting data growth for many a year, the digital universe could grow to more than 160 zettabytes (ZB) of data by 2025.

It’s fuelled in no small part by the rise in the myriad of social and mobile activities. In StorageCraft’s report on big data, the total number of emails (business and consumer) sent per day will exceed 281 billion this year. By 2022, it will reach more than 333 billion.  

Add to that the data being generated by the internet of things (IoT) – where connected devices across the home are swapping digital information – and that projection of 160ZB looks easily achievable. 

As the volume of data continues to increase, the challenge facing the storage sector is to find ways to meet the demand to store it. “Current infrastructure can handle only a fraction of the incoming data deluge, which is expected to consume all of the world’s microchip-grade silicon by 2040,” said Wired

True, not all the data generated will be kept for long, or even at all, said Spectra Logic in its Digital data storage outlook 2018, but the storage sector is constantly seeking innovative ways that will ensure datacentres have the capacity they will need.

Producers such as WD, Toshiba and Seagate are already offering 14TB capacity hard disk drive (HDDs). Toshiba released a 16TB HDD early in 2019 and Seagate said it is expecting to deliver a 40TB version to market by 2023. It’s down to two new technologies being pioneered: HAMR and MAMR, which use heat and microwaves to allow a greater density of data to be stored on each disk.

On the solid state drive (SSD) front, we already have 12TB SSDs on the enterprise market and Spectra Logic estimates a high growth rate for SSDs through to 2020, which it said is when the disk industry will likely be serving a singular market, predominately large IT shops and cloud providers.

“As the volume of data expands, considerable storage innovation is needed to meet capacity, performance and budgetary requirements,” said Spectra Logic CEO Nathan Thompson.

This is all being addressed via innovative ways to store data using conventional media plus finding new ways to store vast amounts in a tiny space.

In the first option, for example, Microsoft’s Project Natick is looking at whether it is possible to build datacentres underwater. It will reduce any need to find suitable sites on land, while offering a great way to keep the centres cool. Then there is Iceland’s proposed data skyscraper which, with a hollow middle, would generate a cooling air flow.

Crystals and DNA

But it’s the new media options that are really exciting and where we are already seeing some truly original thinking. Crystals and DNA, for example, are all being touted as future data storage solutions.

The idea of storing data on DNA is not that new; but it’s still in development stage. The potential, though, is huge.

“DNA has an information-storage density several orders of magnitude higher than any other known storage technology,” says Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, quoted in Wired.

A single gram of DNA can hold roughly 1ZB of data and four grams can carry all the data created in a year. The challenge for the industry is to establish ways of retrieving this data from vast DNA repositories.

Meanwhile, innovators are looking at using crystals as a storage medium. “Nano-sized crystals of salt, encoded with data using light from a laser, could be the next data storage technology of choice,” said Phys Org.

What else? Holographic storage is a developing technology that uses the full depth of standard disks (as opposed to just the surface) and can store data at multiple levels securely for just over 50 years.

5D glass disks are another idea – a prototype the size of a £2 coin that can hold 360TB of data and withstand extreme heat up to 190°C has already been created, and the team behind it believes data can be kept on these disks for billions of years. Hitachi has also produced a 5D glass data disk. It uses binary code and a 2mm thick, 1in2 piece of quartz glass that can hold 40Mb of data.

All pioneering stuff. But let’s not forget the older ways to store data. Quantum CEO Jamie Lerner believes tape is still filling a growing need in the video surveillance and media and entertainment markets.

Sony has developed a magnetic cassette tape that can hold 148GB per square inch of tape. It uses a technique called sputter deposition where argon ions are shot at the polymer film to create a layer of fine magnetic crystals.

The bottom line is, whatever your storage needs – tape for deep archiving or HDDs and SSDs for today’s big data requirement – a good distributor can provide the solutions, as well as the insight into market developments.

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