What’s in the works for the future of computer data storage? I mean we’ve gone from two gigabytes to two terabytes, being a typical amount of PC storage in less than 20 years. A thousand fold increase so are things just going to keep becoming exponentially more capacitors.
Why don’t we start answering this question with a look at our old friend? The mechanical hard drive. Already there are a number of technologies in the works that will make hard drives more spacious while still allowing them to fit in that familiar three and a half inch enclosure hard drive makers like Seagate and Western Digital are working on technologies such as shingled magnetic recording which overlaps data tracks to essentially make them narrower bit patterned media which can encode one bit of data to just one magnetic grain instead of a group and heat assisted magnetic recording or hammer which heats up small areas of the hard disk allowing the magnetic grains themselves that store the data to be a lot smaller.
These technologies are expected to help push hard drive capacities to 50 terabytes by the year 2020.Wow! But aside from changing how magnetic platter data recording works manufacturers are also looking at using more exotic materials.
It turns out the future isn’t just about thinking big, it’s also about thinking small. For example, what if we want to fit 150 of my smartphones? That would be the equivalent of about 10,000 gigabytes on the head of a pin. We can do that, if our storage medium is DNA.
What is DNA?
DNA is the programming language of our genetic code, and it depends upon four building blocks. Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine. And you can think of them as being similar to the 0s and 1s we use in machine language.
It actually encodes information that our cells depend upon for all their behaviors. And DNA can store a lot of data in a very small space. The limit for data storage in DNA is an Exabyte of data per cubic millimeter. This means that you can store a billion gigabytes of data in just two ten-thousandths of a teaspoon and this stuff can survive for up to 500 years, even in harsh environments.
Compare that to the traditional storage media we’ve used in the past, like CDs or floppy disks. Those might last five or ten years before being corrupted. Even magnetic tape can only last between 15 and 30 years.
The Work so far
A few teams of computer scientists around the world have been experimenting with ways to store data into DNA. And they worked with bio-engineers to synthesize data and build it block by block.
Back in April, 2016, a group of scientists with the University of Washington collaborated with Microsoft Research to come up with a new means of encoding information in strands of DNA. In this method, they took the binary data of the file they wanted to encode, and they converted it into base 4, to match the four building blocks of DNA i.e. Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine. They then included ID tags which enabled them to access any byte within a large pool of data. They encoded four large files, and they were able to access them almost perfectly.
Now the real barrier to adopting DNA storage is that it takes a lot of money and time to synthesize and sequence that DNA. But bio-engineers are bringing those barriers down every single day, because they have incentive to do so.
Why is DNA so important?
In past articles, you’ve heard us talk about how much data we produce all the time. Every day, it’s about 25 billion gigabytes. And there are companies that make money by parsing all that data. And there’s a huge incentive to go from enormous super center data reserve to the size of a sugar cube. It’s pretty sweet.
Though we might one day disappear, perhaps our legacy can still live on, if anyone would think to find it.