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Could DNA storage be the future of data storage technology?

Storage is moving out of the realm of magnetics and solid-state electronics and into the world of biology, or DNA to be specific.

Forget about flash. Magnetic media? That's so 20th century. Cloud? Well, that's just spinning disks, tape and chips you can't see but sort of trust that they're there. However, all that pales in comparison to the latest and greatest storage medium: DNA storage. Yes, good old deoxyribonucleic acid might be the answer to our data storage prayers.

Even before scientists have finished fully plotting the genomes and exploring all the other mysteries locked up in nucleotides, a handful of those wizards have figured out a new use for our favorite building block of life.

It seems those double helixes can do more than just carry the genes for blue eyes, an aptitude for Calculus or the ability to consistently hit jump shots from the three-point range. Those twisty little rascals can store our data, too. When I say "our data," I mean the kinds of data we've been wading through the past few years -- big data, Internet of Things data, Web-scale data, mobile data, social data -- you get the idea.

DNA researchers have known for a couple of years that it's possible to store a bunch of bits and bytes as DNA, but it's an iffy proposition and the integrity of the data is questionable. Kind of like all that stuff you have stored on a pile of floppy disks in the back of the closet. (Sadly, I realize that at least half of my readers won't have any idea what a "floppy disk" is.)

But a group of researchers in Zurich, Switzerland, recently managed to work out some of the kinks in the double helix and have developed processes to store data as DNA in a reliable manner for the long term -- as in thousands, or even millions, of years. I'm pretty sure that's even better than LTO tape and longer than what the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires.

It's fascinating stuff, to be sure, but I have trouble picturing what all this looks like. Is it something you can only see under a microscope? Could you back all your data up to DNA and then inject it into someone -- like that surly backup admin with the strange hair and a Megadeth T-shirt? And instead of some complex and costly process to replicate your data remotely, could you just put him on a plane and send him to France?

Yes, good old deoxyribonucleic acid might be the answer to our data storage prayers.

The possibilities are endless and unquestionably intriguing, and the age of DNA storage could usher in a whole new world of data storage screw-ups, redefining the meaning of "user error" in ways we never imagined. (I picture CSI: Silicon Valley special agents about to crack a case, reading the DNA report and exclaiming, "Hey, this is a PowerPoint presentation!" Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a CEO is trying to explain a slide showing some perp's saliva.)

All kidding aside, there is a serious side to this stuff. There has to be; I can't think of single joke with "DNA" as the punch line. But even without mucking about with genomes and double helixes, storage media is still managing to grow to proportions that strain our ability to manage them. HGST, the WD subsidiary, introduced 10 TB-capacity, helium-filled disk drives, and most array vendors now support nearline drives up to 8 TB.

That's not the only media that's growing: Oracle's T10000D tape offers a native -- uncompressed -- capacity of 8.5 TB, while IBM's TS1150 tape drive features uncompressed capacity of up to 10 TB.

Solid-state is also experiencing a growth spurt, with big-capacity flash such as SanDisk's 4 TB SAS solid-state drives (SSDs) and PCI Express flash products like Intel's 2 TB SSD DC P3700 or HGST's 2.2 TB FlashMax III.

The issue isn't how much data we can store; we're going to keep getting more and more capacity until those DNA-based products are on the shelves of Best Buy. The real issue is how to manage all that data, know what we have and where it is, and ensure that it is in a retrievable form. If we ever plan to turn all that stuff into a useful resource for in-depth data analysis, we're going to have to overcome all those management and administrative hurdles, even if all our company's data ends up strolling the Champs-Elysees wearing a Megadeth T-shirt and a beret.

Rich Castagna is TechTarget's VP of Editorial/Storage Media Group.

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