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Data storage media fighting capacity battle … for now

Though tomorrow's data storage media may store petabytes, today's data storage growth is staying ahead of capacity … for the moment.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Storage magazine: Object storage market vendors give NAS a nudge:

Just about a year ago, I got all jazzed about a new discovery that could turn DNA into a storage medium. That was pretty cool -- the stuff of life getting turned into the equivalent of a 21st century floppy disk, but with a lot more capacity and even more intriguing scenarios. Scientists speculated that a mere gram of DNA could potentially hold 2 TB of data. Not bad for a medium that until now only handled mundane tasks like determining the color of our eyes and whether or not we were going to lose our hair eventually.

Now the lab coat set has come up with another ingenious alternative to boring old magnetic data storage media or stolid solid state. In news reported by a number of sources, including Research and Markets, the arrival of "quartz coin data storage" has been widely heralded. Not to be confused with bitcoins, each of these coins (developed at the University of Southampton in the UK) is said to be capable of holding 360 TB of data on a disk that appears to be only a bit larger than a quarter. That's a lot of data in a small space, and it makes that 32 GB USB flash drive on your keychain seem pretty puny.

According to the Research and Markets press release, here's how they did it:

"The femtosecond laser encodes information in five dimensions. The first three dimensions of X, Y and Z denote the nano-grating's location within the coin, while the 4th and 5th dimension exist on the birefringence patterns of the nano-gratings."

Now the lab coat set has come up with another ingenious alternative to boring old magnetic data storage media or stolid solid state.

Well, sure, if you're going to resort to using birefringence patterns and nanogratings, then that kind of capacity in that small of a space is no surprise. (Confession: I have no idea what birefringence patterns and nanogratings are.)

All those terabytes on a small coin are pretty impressive, but what's even more staggering is the predicted life expectancy of this form of data storage media: 13.8 billion years. That's about the current age of the universe! Sure, that number is theoretical, but even if it's only a measly one billion years, I'm impressed. I just hope I'm around to check on the accuracy of that forecast.

If you're starting to think about reconfiguring your data center to house a lot of little quartz coins, you might want to slow down a bit. I don't expect WD or Seagate are likely to be stamping out quartz coin drives any time soon. But maybe you don't really need all that extra capacity anyway.

HDD capacities on the decline

Some market research firms have reported that the total hard disk capacity recently sold is down from previous periods. For example, TrendFocus noted that total HDD capacity shipped declined sharply from about mid-2014 to the middle of 2015. If you think that cloud and flash are responsible for that dip and are filling the gap, that doesn't appear to be entirely true.

What's more likely is that storage managers are finally trying to get the upper hand in the struggle to control data storage media capacity. And with new capacity requirements looming with big data analytics and IoT apps, it's kind of a now-or-never proposition: Take control or take cover.

What's more likely is that storage managers are finally trying to get the upper hand in the struggle to control data storage media capacity.

Our storage purchasing surveys reveal that storage buyers have been better at planning ahead over the past six or seven years by buying bigger arrays and then filling in with additional drives as needed. Similarly, while flash is likely taking up all the slack of slumping hard disk drive (HDD) sales, it's also likely that solid state is affecting storage buying habits. In the past, to squeeze out required performance, a storage array might've been configured with dozens of short-stroked 15K rpm disks, but now the same -- or better -- performance can be achieved with far fewer flash devices. So the net-net there is better performance and a smaller capacity purchase.

Tape -- you know, that type of data storage media that's been declared dead umpteen times in the past decade -- could also be making a difference due to its generous storage capacities absorbing some of the capacity previously destined for disk.

Clear out ROTten storage

Veritas' recent (and oddly named) Global Databerg Report declared that only 15% of the data a typical company has stashed away on its storage systems is business-critical stuff. And the report called 52% of the stored information "dark data" because its value was unknown. The rest of the data (33%) is described as "redundant, obsolete or trivial," or ROT -- definitely one of the best acronyms I've seen in some time.

I don't really know how accurate Veritas' numbers are, but I bet that they're at least in the ballpark for most companies. In our most recent purchasing survey, respondents indicated that they manage an average of 1.4 petabytes of data on all forms of data storage media, including disks, tape, flash, cloud, optical and whatever else you can lay a few bits and bytes on. If 33% of that is indeed ROT, that means companies are paying for the care and feeding of about half a petabyte of junk.

Perhaps data centers have begun to get the ROT out. Some of the newer and smarter storage systems make the chore of finding and deleting rotten data easier by providing more intelligence about the stored information. It's also possible that tape, our favorite dead data storage media, has been resurrected for archival purposes, and both dark data and ROT have found a final resting place. The LTO Ultrium Consortium, which effectively produces the only tape game in town with its LTO format, reported that vendors shipped 78,000 PB of compressed LTO tape capacity in 2015.

In any event, when you put the ever-growing capacity demands and the apparent downturn in disk capacity sales side by side, you have to conclude that we're all getting at least a little better at what we save and what we dump. And we'd better get used to it -- it looks like selective saving will be the way of life if we want to survive the imminent big data/IoT data deluge.

Next Steps

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This was last published in May 2016

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