The Elusive Storage Utopia

Today, long-term data storage requires constant oversight. But researchers hope cool new technologies will change that soon.

"Migrate every five years." That might sound like a guideline for dysfunctional birds, but it's actually a software setting that the National Film Board of Canada uses in its digital archiving system.

"The data has to be kept for infinity, so there has to be a migration process," says Julie Dutrisac, head of research and development for the film board in Montreal, which preserves 13,000 Canadian films. "When you get into the digital domain, you are stuck migrating."

Migration, of course, means moving the material to new storage hardware, because the old hardware can't be expected to last much more than five years, or because of expected obsolescence.

"Most storage products have a five-year warranty, and most users are in the practice of replacing their systems every five years, with infrastructures becoming completely transformed, like a snake shedding its skin, in a maximum of 10 years," says John Monroe, an analyst at research firm Gartner. "But it has to be done without changing any data bit. People are terrified about it. It keeps IT managers up at night."

But better sleep may be on the way in as little as five years because researchers are working to develop storage technology that should be reliable for decades rather than years, slashing the need for migration.

Racetrack Memory

Scientists at IBM, for example, are cooking up a technology called "racetrack memory," which consists of microscopic segments of U-shaped nanowires of ferromagnetic material suspended vertically in CMOS chips. Each nanowire carries about 100 bits, encoded as nonvolatile spots of magnetism.

"I think it will be the storage Utopia," says Stuart Parkin, an IBM fellow at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose. "There are no trade-offs."

He foresees response times of 1 nanosecond, rather than the tens of nanoseconds of today's system DRAM. The cost should be on par with that of disk drives, but with a millionfold performance advantage. Meanwhile, racetrack units should be much more compact than hard drives, since they don't need a motor or spindle, Parkin notes.

"We move the data without moving any atoms," he adds. "There is no mechanical motion. Instead, we are rotating magnetic moments, i.e., the direction of the magnetic field."

The expected longevity of the data would depend on the final design of a specific racetrack system and could extend for decades. "Most magnetic devices are designed for 10 years, and ours should last at least that long," Parkin says. But he predicts that few people would want to keep any system longer than a decade, due to the pace of technological progress.

Parkin expects to see the technology on the market in five to seven years.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon