What is Data Storage and How it is Changing

Updated: Jul 23

Each day, IDC estimates that 35 million terabytes of data are created. Data is generated everywhere around us and storing all this data is a monumental task that is critical to the functioning of today’s society.

Looking back at the early days of computers, data storage mediums were expensive, large and slow. With the continued innovation over the decades, data storage technology has made great strides to achieve what we have today - Hard disk drives as the dominant technology, cloud storage as the rising delivery method, and DNA / Silica storage as technologies in the horizon.

Here we examine computer data storage through the lens of a business. Taking you on a journey through time, from the past 50 years; and beyond, to the next 50 years.

The Past

1. Magnetic Drum

The magnetic drum marked the beginning of the magnetic data storage phase. Magnetic drums were designed to be utilised in the very first computer mainframes, hence this technology marked the beginning of computer memory development. In the 1950s and 60s, the magnetic drum was widely used as the main working memory of computers. As the manufacture of drums ceased in the 1970s, they were replaced by hard disk drives. While each magnetic drum only had a capacity of 48KB, equivalent to 5 word documents, the same principles led researchers to create the next innovation: the hard disk drive.

The Present

2. Magnetic Platter (Hard Disk Drive)

Data Centres are an integral part of any business’s IT infrastructure. The first magnetic hard drive introduced by IBM in 1956 was large and cumbersome. Despite weighing over a ton and equating to the size of a refrigerator, it could only store 5 MB of data. Today, the HDD is portable and smaller, with higher storage capacity. Since then, magnetic disks have decreased in size and increased in storage capacity to one or more terabytes.

Hard Disk Drives have evolved drastically over the years, but this evolution does not stop here. Heated Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) is currently being looked at. This is a process where heat is applied to the disk to increase data storage capacity, thereby increasing the data storage of the hard drive. In this case, HAMR results in data bits becoming smaller and more densely packed on the disk while remaining magnetically stable.

3. Cloud Storage

While the traditional delivery model of computer storage was data centres, as the internet began to mature, a unique opportunity presented itself for computer data storage. Today, over 48% of all corporate data is stored in the cloud.

Cloud storage originated through demand by specialised applications, primarily by the American military and scientific labs. The military used cloud storage for the need for high availability of data, and scientific labs used cloud storage for the need to compute vast amounts of data off-site as supercomputers. Over time, cloud computing has become more wide-spread, ultimately serving the mainstream market today.

Today, the industry is dominated by 3 giants - Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Each of them have their distinct focus and strategies to capture the market demand. Cloud computing, being eco-friendly, cost-cutting and increasingly affordable, is sure to attract more entrants to the market. The on-going growth of the industry shows that there remain dimensions that have yet to be uncovered.

The Future

With technological innovation on the rise, the introduction of new data storage options and technologies offer higher data density mediums for data storage and even lower costs for businesses to enjoy. Specifically, two major breakthroughs in recent years, mainly 5D optical glass data storage and Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) storage, have gained traction within the data storage technology industry, offering vast potential to revolutionize the way businesses store data in the near future.

4. 5D Optical Glass

Data has always been written and stored on the 2D surfaces of magnetic tapes and platters. However, researchers have recently discovered that data could be stored inside the 3D lattice structure of “5D” optical glass, thus unlocking an additional dimension for data storage and increasing the data density of the glass (Nordrum, 2020).

5. Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) Storage

Other than storing data in glass, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), the genetic substance that stores our genetic code, could be used to store data too. When scientists were able to extract the millions-year-old entire DNA genome from the extinct wooly mammoth, it opened their eyes to the vast potential of DNA data storage due to its high data storage density and resistance.

While both technologies have extremely high data storage capabilities, and are long-lasting, they still have ways to go in reducing the cost for mainstream use. Additionally, both storage methods are non-rewritable, meaning that once the data is encoded, it cannot be changed.

Technological advances leading to the innovation of magnetic platters and cloud storage have been pertinent to keep up with our need to store increasing volumes of data; and optimistically, 5D Optical Glass and DNA will revolutionise data storage technology in the future. Ultimately, developments in technology will continue to optimise data storage technologies, enabling businesses to manage infrastructure, respond to market changes, and serve customers better.

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