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Atomic storage offers speed and capacity, lacks intelligence

Dutch scientists studying atomic data storage claim that 500 TB of data can be stored on one square inch, but data management remains elusive.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Storage magazine: Copy management system saves storage space, cash:

Just when you thought DNA would become the ultimate storage medium, it's been overtaken by an even more granular approach for turning bits and bytes into a biological blend. That's right; DNA storage is so last week! Why get tangled up in double helixes when you can just go to the heart of the matter (literally) and store data on something even more microscopic?

When I think of Holland, I can't help but picture windmills and really, really fast Olympic skaters whipping by in their orange bodysuits. There's a heckuva lot more going on in the Netherlands these days, however. It's also where the latest chapter of the future of storage is unfolding. Scientists at the University of Delft have figured out how to store data on a single atom -- a single atom! For someone like me who still remembers 8-inch floppy disks that could store 80 KB (yes, that's a K), this atomic storage stuff reads like science fiction.

By being able to stick a piece of data onto an atom, the Dutch claim that 500 TB could be stored within one square inch. Wow, that's way better than an 8-inch floppy.

The news release heralding the Dutch feat said such density would make it possible to write the full contents of the U.S. Library of Congress into a 0.1 millimeter cube. This is mind-boggling stuff that makes 42U racks look like behemoth structures from another time and place. Atomic storage could wipe out the data center as we know it, or at least shrink it down to something that could slip inside a CIO's pocket.

There is one minor snag to this promising picture. Right now, the process that makes storing data on atoms possible has to occur at about minus 300 degrees Celsius. Don't bother trying to remember how to convert that to Fahrenheit. Take my word for it: It's pretty chilly. So unless global warming reverses quickly and drastically, I don't expect Seagate or WD will be rolling out atomic storage any time soon.

Atomic storage could wipe out the data center as we know it, or at least shrink it down to something that could slip inside a CIO's pocket.

Anyway, by the time they do, I'm sure we'll be reading reports about new storage techniques that can crack open atoms and store data on protons and neutrons. And, by then, would quark storage really be all that far behind?

Earth to Rich -- prepare for a landing …

Okay, I'm back from the future. As much fun as it is to ponder DNA or atomic storage simply because of the sheer magnitude of the capacities that may be achievable, one tends to tumble back down to Earth when you consider how the heck we'll be able to manage all that data. Storage may get smaller and smaller and able cram more and more into minuscule spaces, but our brains are, well, not developing at the same rate.

Managing all those bits and bytes

Even now, while most companies can cope with capacity needs one way or another, many still struggle with what to do with all their data and how to extract the pithy from the passé from a lot of bits and bytes that might be well beyond their sell-by dates.

Unless global warming reverses quickly and drastically, I don't expect Seagate or WD will be rolling out atomic storage any time soon.

The biggest challenges in storage today are probably the same biggest challenges we dealt with five years ago, and five years before that … and so on. Performance and capacity? Sure, those are huge challenges, but they're being addressed year in and year out as storage vendors roll out faster and bigger media to (usually) keep pace with enterprise requirements, if not maybe staying a half a step or so ahead.

Your storage system may be pokey or overflowing, but there are remedies for those ills, and they're available now. But if you want to really manage storage, you have to be able to do more than move bits here and there, squeeze the excess air out of them and then push them as quickly as possible.

True storage management means saving or discarding data based on its usefulness and relevance, putting that data in the appropriate places, controlling who gets to see or copy or delete that data, managing multiple versions of the data and so on. You get the picture.

Perhaps, maybe, by the time we can store data on atoms, the data will do all that thinking for us.

Surprisingly (at least to me), there are still only a few vendors -- DataGravity, Qumulo and maybe a few others -- seriously trying to address these storage management issues.

Bigger and faster is fine, but smarter isn't a bad idea, either. Perhaps, maybe, by the time we can store data on atoms, the data will do all that thinking for us.

About the author:
Rich Castagna is TechTarget's VP of Editorial.

Next Steps

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This was last published in September 2016

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What is the future of atomic storage?
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I'd be worried about how to do error correction and validation with atomic storage. If you use one atom for a bit, it seems like it would be pretty easy for data to get messed up.
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