If you take the guts of a Blu-ray or DVD player, blow it up, and spread it across a work bench, it looks like this. So you might be surprised to know that you're looking at the future of storage.
A laser beam whose wavelength is being monitored by this Soviet-looking machine is being bounced from mirror to mirror to mirror before it lands on a spinning disc the size of CD, but orange, and transparent. It's reading the holograms that are embedded buried inside the disc, gigabytes of random test data.
This work table is deep inside the labyrinthine complex that is GE's Global Research Lab, 550 acres of big machines and big brains, in the hinterlands of Niskayuna, New York. It's where the company that brought us 30 Rock invents the future of energy, aviation, healthcare, and dozens of other mega-industries, including, as it turns out, data storage.
Hard drives, DVDs, USB sticks: This is where we store our digital lives. But while our data is timeless, our storage devices aren't. So, what's next? And then what?
Data storage is something most people don't spend much time thinking about, and if we do, it's in abstract terms. Laptops have a fixed amount of space; we pay for more, but accept less. DVDs hold a certain length of video, or a healthy chunk of a music collection; these are disposable. Flash drives move stuff from one place to another; we sense that they're different than hard drives; but we're not sure how.
What we know is that we need to store stuff, somewhere. And by we, I mean we: our network infrastructure won't be ready for widespread cloud computing, or that fantasy of downloading everything you'll ever watch in full HD, for a very, very long time, and until then—or for people with unease about that concept, even then—storage is something we need to think about.
In 2010, storage tech is in flux. Here's how we—and the people and companies we're slowly (but surely) handing our data over to, store stuff now, and more importantly, later.
Hard Drives Aren't Dead
Hard drives! You almost certainly own at least one of these, in you laptop, desktop, or even portable music player. The basic principle revolves (ha!) around the reading and writing of data onto a magnetized, metallic platter, which is assembled inside a hard drive's case alongside a head, which is roughly analogous to the needle on a record player, except instead reading variations in a physical groove, this head floats above the platter, reading little tiny magnetic variations from a short distance.
If the immediate evocation of a record player didn't tip you off, this technology has a long legacy (read: It's old as hell): The first machine to utilize the concept was built in 1956; the first modern-looking, reasonably small hard drive (at 5MB, no less!) shipped in 1980, from Seagate.
The story since then has been surprisingly uncomplicated, with steady advances in data storage density, decreases in size and a drastic drops in price. The first 1GB hard drive, built in 1980, weighed over 500 pounds. Today, a 2 terabyte—that's 2,000 times more capacious—hard drive is small enough to tuck into a loose jeans pocket, and can be had for under $140.
But surely this technology is reaching a breaking point, right? Not quite. With storage density approaching practical maximum's, hard drive manufacturers resurrected an old theory somewhere around 2005: Perpendicular storage. Seagate senior vice president, Recording Media R & D and Operations Mark E. Re:
We use to use a recording method called longitudinal recording, which is called that because the magnetization and the storage layer on the disk or platter is a plane. It's parallel to the surface. And when we moved to perpendicular [storage], we change the magnetization layer on the disk so now it aligns perpendicular to the surface
When you're trying to get your bits closer and closer together with longitudinal storage, the magnetization didn't want to say there. It wanted to spring apart, like if you're putting two bar magnets together. But if align them perpendicular…they want to be closer together.
Translation: More data, less surface space.
Seagate saw longitudinal recording limiting their hard drives to somewhere around 100 gigabits (12.5 gigabytes) per square inch, and at the rate things were going, without perpendicular storage, hard drive makers would be up against a wall.
With perpendicular recording, though, they think they can eventually hit somewhere around 1 terabit (about 128 gigabytes) per square inch. Today, in 2010, they're maxing out at about 400 gigabits per square inch in stuff you can buy off the shelf. There are quite a few years left of regular hard drives getting larger, faster and cheaper before the technology runs its course, and that's not even counting the wilder hard drive research that's going on. Heat assisted magnetic recording uses localized heating of disc surfaces, for ultra-dense data writing. Bit pattern media could reduce the space needed for a bit on a hard drive's surface from 50 to 1 magnetic grains, by encoding the platter's substrate with molecular patterns.
Seagate's hazy prediction for what this actually means for hard drives: Upwards of 50 terabits (6.25 terabytes) per square inch, which companies be working towards, and making money from, for years. Hard drives aren't going anywhere—at least, not for now.
The Inevitable Rise of SSDs
So what about SSDs, or solid-state drives? They're by far the buzziest of the storage options, and we're constantly told that solid-state drives will replace hard drives, like, now. That's not quite right. Solid-state drives, which have no moving parts and store data with electrical charge rather than magnetism, are taking over—just, not everything.
The basics, from our last Giz Explains on the subject:
What's inside is a bunch of flash memory chips and a controller running the show. There are no moving parts, so an SSD doesn't need to start spinning, doesn't need to physically hunt data scattered across the drive and doesn't make a whirrrrr. The result is that it's crazy faster than a regular hard drive in nearly every way, so you have insanely quick boot times (an old video, but it stands), application launches, random writes and almost every other measure of drive performance (writing large files excepted).
So, they're fast. They don't catastrophically fail (though they do slowly degrade). They're perfect for laptops! And you probably want one.
But the future of SSDs is a fairly narrow one, at least for now: Consumer applications range from notebooks to desktops to NAS storage, but they're all just that: consumer solutions. While we're going to have to wait a few more years for Flash storage to reach a truly reasonable price point for our new gaming PCs and notebooks, the enterprise world—where data needs are rapidly outpacing ours, and the scale of storage is so much larger—will have to wait much longer.
The fastest area of growth for solid-state storage isn't even in HDD-like SSDs anyway—it's in portable devices, like smartphones (and soon, tablets). This storage is of a different nature, though: speed isn't terribly important in a mobile device, nor is capacity. People are going to be fine with their iPad's low-mid-range chips of flash storage, because they'll run apps, play movies and store magazines just fine. Meanwhile, Google will continue to buy hundreds of thousands of massive hard drives to keep up with demand, and the rest of us will gleefully shell out for the rapidly cheapening solid-state drives that will power our laptops. This will continue in parallel, for as far as the eye can see.
But what will the SSDs of the future be like? Research now is focused on eliminating their comparative weaknesses more than anything else. They'll become more buyable, I guess? Cheaper? Longer-lived? (Current flash storage of the more affordable multi-level cell variety can only be written to about 10,000 before failure.) Yes, all of that. General Manager of SanDisk's SSD group, Doron Myersdorf, from our SSD Giz Explains: "More granular algorithms with caching and prediction means there's less unnecessary erasing and writing." In simpler terms, companies are getting smarter about writing data to SSDs, with their limited lifespan in mind. And on the storage capacity/price issue:
There have been several walls in history of the [flash] industry—there was transition to MLC, then three bits per cell, then four—every time there is some physical wall, that physics doesn't allow you to pass, there is always a new shift of paradigm as to how we make the next step on the performance curve.
SSDs as we know them today are still a young, and they've got a long way to go. And before the technology can completely take over the consumer space, we're going to see more and more awkward hybrid products, like Samsung's MH80 drive, which uses a small bank of flash memory for some tasks, and spins up the hard drive only when necessary. Progress!
Your next computer probably won't have one. But the one after that? Sure. Meanwhile, cheap flash storage, like the stuff inside your crappy USB key, will only get cheaper. And when 64GB thumb drives are commonplace and cheap, you'll probably stop caring about optical media, like Blu-ray discs, for file storage and sharing. Or not.
Our Holographic Future
Optical media isn't going anywhere, either. Put another way, Blu-ray isn't going to be the last disc you buy—it's just the last one where data will be stored only on the surface. Holographic storage, like GE is working on, and which we got to see up close at their Global Research labs, stores data down inside in many, many layers (GE's demoed up to 75), encoding the data using thousands and thousands of tiny holograms throughout the entire disc. The secret sauce is the material the disc is made out of, and how it reacts to light. On a broader level, where GE's holographic storage differs from the other major approach to holographic storage (called page-based), and what allows it to reach densities of 1TB per disc, is that it uses even tinier micro holograms that store less data per individual hologram, but more in aggregate.
While GE is mostly pitching the tech to archivists for now—like our friends at the Library of Congress, who wanna hold onto stuff for a real long time—since the discs, GE says, last for 30 years, what makes it viable as a storage tech you might get your hands on soon after it launches in 2012 is that it's designed to fit in with the current optical media infrastructure, meaning it'll be cheaper and easier to roll out than some radically different tech. That is, the discs are the same physical size and shape as CDs and DVDs, and they use a laser that's very similar to Blu-ray's, even using the same wavelength. On a hardware level, it just uses a slightly different optical element, but the rest basically comes down to software/firmware, meaning you might still be able to play your Blu-ray discs in a holographic storage drive. (This exploded view of a disc being read, that orange spinning thing, is what all readers look like in a laboratory, even Blu-ray drives—because it's easier to tweak settings than in their actual product form.)
After SSDs and hard drives are reduced to hilarious relics, mentioned only to shock classrooms full of children to attention with a jolt of pure absurdity ("so you're saying the spun? In circles?), how will we store data? A few of the nuttier possibilities:
Interest is growing in the use of metallofullerenes - carbon "cages" with embedded metallic compounds - as materials for miniature data storage devices. Researchers at Empa have discovered that metallofullerenes are capable of forming ordered supramolecular structures with different orientations. By specifically manipulating these orientations it might be possible to store and subsequently read out information.
Two of pop-science's favorite buzz words, united.
What if, instead of carving transistors and other microelectronic devices out of chunks of silicon, you used organic molecules? Even large molecules are only a few nanometers in size; an integrated circuit using molecules could contain trillions of electronic devices-making possible tiny supercomputers or memories with a million times the storage density of today's semiconductor chips.
A thumb drive larger than your entire NAS would actually have to be made arbitrarily larger, just so you wouldn't lose it.
Trust your data with tiny bugs: Artificial DNA with encoded information can be added to the genome of common bacteria, thus preserving the data....
According to researchers, up to 100 bits of data can be attached to each organism. Scientists successfully encoded and attached the phrase "e=mc2 1905" to the DNA of bacillus subtilis, a common soil bacteria.
Your storage drive could literally be alive, one day.
• Quantum mechanics: Data encoded on an unfathomable scale:
In a quantum computer, a single bit of information is encoded into a property of a quantum mechanical system-the spin of an electron, for example. In most arrangements that rely on Nitrogen atoms in diamond to store data, reading the information also resets the qubit, which means there is only one opportunity to measure the state of the qubit.
Granted, research into this now is focused on storing tiny amounts of data for a matter of seconds, which is just long enough to allow a quantum computer to barely function, but still: potential!
Data: It's everywhere. And one day, we'll be able to take advantage of that.
[Bacteria pic via]
Still something you wanna know? Send questions about platters, disks, bits, bops, beeps or boops here, with "Giz Explains" in the subject line.
Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions, and might truly live forever.