Although we usually connect data storage with technology, we humans have been finding methods of storage of data for a very long time, even before communication itself began. And obviously, the brain had been the medium of storage. As primitive communication developed, information was passed orally and by actions and pictures, which developed into alphabets so the information could then be engraved compactly. Then came the use of papyrus and the paper, exclusive for storing data. And as the cognitive abilities developed, we found more and more ways of storing information, which had by then, become something we could not live without. The invention and progress of computers, usage of binary for data storage and the development of programming languages has been radical. At present, the common media of storage are Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), Solid State Drives (SSDs), and magnetic tapes.
Having discussed the past, let us now look at the future aspects of data storage. The amount of data being generated is seeing an exponential increase, and so does the requirement to store and process it faster. As predicted by analyst firm IDC, global data generation will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 23% through 2025, which outpaces the 19.2% CAGR of global storage capacity. Discoveries of subtle phenomena and development of precision techniques have enabled us to explore more and to come up with impossible-seeming ways of storing data. We brief a few of the current hot subjects of research below.
Let’s start from what is probably the most familiar. Magnetic tapes have been around for quite a long time and have seen a lot of advancement. From being able to store 1MB of data on a reel, the modern tape can store upto 15 TB in a single cartridge with very low error rates. Though these tapes do not offer a very fast processing speed, they are an excellent medium for purposes like backup storage as they last for decades.
It also has the added advantage that it is very cheap. The fundamental physical mechanism used to store data here is the ability to polarise the magnetic field of narrow tracks of a thin layer of magnetic material. More information can be stored if the area polarised for a bit becomes narrower. And it can be done till we reach a point when the information becomes unreadable. The consequent developments required in the techniques of reading and writing is what is being researched on and what sees more scope(“Why the future of data storage is (Still) magnetic tape,” 2021). And hence, it is likely that it will last as a storage medium for more years to come.
In 2013, Western Digital shipped the world’s first commercial helium hard drive. This drive had a 50% increment on traditional air-filled HDDs in terms of storage while consuming 25% less energy. Helium (He) drives which are similar to HDDs as they use the same physical platters but with helium instead of air in the sealed casing. The main idea behind using helium is that it is six times less dense compared to air and hence the resistance gets low (“future of storage,”). This benefits us in the form of less power consumption. He-drives are compatible with most industry-standard magnetic recording technologies and are also cooler. Hence they deliver great performance in an affordable range. But on the negative side, recovery of data from these drives is extremely difficult using current technology (“3 reasons to avoid switching to helium-sealed hard drives,” 2020).
5D optical data storage:
As the name suggests, this method uses five-degrees of freedom for data storage as opposed to two for CDs and three for DVDs. Information is encoded using a femtosecond laser writing process on a nanostructured glass for permanently recording digital data.
It has a capacity of hundreds of terabytes per disc and is thermally stable upto 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, it can last for as long as billions of years. Recently, this initiative of the University of Southampton has garnered the interest of the tech giant, Microsoft (“5D Optical Storage,”). The initiative, called Project Silica, seeks to exploit 5D optical storage in quartz glass for the first-ever storage technology designed and built for the cloud. These devices exploit the two extra dimensions obtained from the property of a medium known as “birefringence”. The data stored in these devices can be erased as well as rewritten, making them more versatile. Further details regarding these 5D devices can be found in (Zhang et al., 2014) and (Zhang et al., 2016).
DNA Data Storage:
The term DNA data storage sounds quite futuristic. But nature already knew the mechanism of storing enormous information in the form of DNA with the four base pairs- A (Adenine), C (Cytosine), G (Guanine) and T (Thymine).
Several works are ongoing over this idea of using DNA as an information vessel. Recently in June 2019, scientists reported that all 16 GB of text from Wikipedia’s English-language version have been encoded into synthetic DNA (Shankland, 2019). Though the methodology is slow and expansive, also we cannot use it in the domestic world as it requires specialised equipment to compel the information into a readable form of traditional computers, the DNA strands are incredibly dense as storage media, remarkably resilient and promise errorless safety for millions of years.
Similar to electronics one can see “spintronics” become an inseparable part of our lives in near future. Most of our current storage device sector is dominated by flash memories such as dynamic random access memory (DRAM) and HDDs, both of them having their limitations. DRAMs have a better multi-tasking, low energy consumption performance compared to HDDs but are too volatile in nature. Hence researchers have come up with non-volatile spintronic devices that exploit spin property of the electrons to store data as opposed to traditional charge-based electronic devices (Puebla et al., 2020).
Spintronic devices comprise magnetic layers that serve as spin polarizers or analyzers separated by non-magnetic layers through which the spin-polarized electrons are transmitted (Buschow, 2011). They can be based on either ferromagnetic or antiferromagnetic substances, and domain walls (DWs) present in them are used as the source of memory. The effects on these domain walls on the application of voltages are studied and the current induced domain wall motion records a memory bit. This concept is called the racetrack memory. These are sequential storage devices, where the domain walls can move over many positions corresponding to bits. In such devices, binary operations can be achieved by superpositions of different spin currents.
Spintronic devices can be a revolution as it can prove to be several orders of magnitudes faster (especially with antiferromagnetic devices) and more energy efficient as compared to the current technologies.
Thus, the future era is not only dealing with the advancement in each field but to store this achievement is itself going to be a challenging task. The above shown are just a few examples from the great ocean of upcoming data storage innovations. These devices promise us from the range of affordable, convenient and longer safety and can be termed as one of the most important building blocks of our future.
3 reasons to avoid switching to helium-sealed hard drives. (2020, September 11). Aesonlabs Data Recovery Systems – ISO5 Class 100 Laboratory. https://www.aesonlabs.ca/blogs/3-reasons-to-avoid-switching-to-helium-sealed-hard-drives/
5D Optical Storage. (n.d.). Superman memory crystal | Official Site | 5D Optical Storage. https://www.5dmemorycrystal.com/technology/
Buschow, K. H. (2011). Handbook of magnetic materials. Elsevier.
The future of storage. (n.d.). Backup, Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity as a Service. https://www.databarracks.com/future-of-processing-and-storage/storage.html
Puebla, J., Kim, J., Kondou, K., & Otani, Y. (2020). Spintronic devices for energy-efficient data storage and energy harvesting. Communications Materials, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43246-020-0022-5
Shankland, S. (2019, June 29). Startup catalog has jammed all 16GB of Wikipedia’s text onto DNA strands. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/tech/computing/startup-packs-all-16gb-wikipedia-onto-dna-strands-demonstrate-new-storage-tech/
Why the future of data storage is (Still) magnetic tape. (2021, November 8). IEEE Spectrum. https://spectrum.ieee.org/why-the-future-of-data-storage-is-still-magnetic-tape
Zhang, J., Gecevičius, M., Beresna, M., & Kazansky, P. G. (2014). Seemingly unlimited lifetime data storage in Nanostructured glass. Physical Review Letters, 112(3), 033901. https://doi.org/10.1103/physrevlett.112.033901
Zhang, J., Čerkauskaitė, A., Drevinskas, R., Patel, A., Beresna, M., & Kazansky, P. G. (2016). Eternal 5D data storage by ultrafast laser writing in glass. SPIE Proceedings. https://doi.org/10.1117/12.2220600