The Future Is Upon Us
Digital information is stored on innumerable HDDs,
SSDs, DVDs, USB sticks, SD cards, magnetic tapes,
and so forth. Although the data is timeless, the storage
devices are finite and of limited capacity. As the
amount of data continues to grow, so will the demand
for larger and more efficient data storage devices. For
instance, in a previous column (Data Storage Issues:
Part 1, DFI News, Fall 2013) it was mentioned that
the National Security Agency facility located in Utah
will eventually be able to store five Zettabytes of
information. Can anyone really comprehend just how
much information that represents? Let’s try to put that
number into more meaningful and understandable
terms. It would take 1.25 billion 4TB HDDs to store
five Zettabytes! Since a state-of-the-art 4TB HDD
costs around $150.00, the cost of the HDDs would
come to a staggering $187.5 billion dollars. This
presents a real manufacturing problem since only
about 550 million or so HDDs are produced each year,
the vast majority of which are smaller than 4TBs.
Consider how long it would take and how many
technicians would be needed to install that many
HDDs if it took an average of 15 minutes to install just
one. To pay thousands upon thousands of technicians
for a number of years to do the installations would add
many more billions of dollars to the overall cost.
When the cost of the physical structures and all the
terminals, servers, switches, routers, racks, fans, ca-
bling, etc. to operate 1.25 billion HDDs is added, the
total could easily exceed 1 trillion dollars. Addition-
ally, there is the cost of the electrical power needed
to run all that hardware and the HVAC systems to
prevent a meltdown from all the heat generated by the
equipment. Lots and lots of electrical power, probably
somewhere between 20 - 30 Gigawatts (GW). To put
that amount of power into perspective, the world’s
largest nuclear power plant generates about 8 GWs of
power, and the peak power generation of the world’s
largest hydroelectric dam is about 18 GWs. Presuming
the necessary power were available at a cost of $0.20
per kilowatt hour (k Wh), the annual cost of the power
could be between $35 – $52 billion dollars.
Future data storage needs for businesses, corporations,
and governments are going to far exceed the ability of
current technology to provide those storage devices.
Obviously, without major technological advancements,
the cost of future data storage could be unprecedented.
There are however, a number of technologies under
development which may eventually be able to store
vast amounts of information, far exceeding today’s
devices. Some of those technologies were previously discussed (Data Storage Issues: Part 3, DFI News,
In the late 1950s, a lecture titled “There’s Plenty of
Room at the Bottom” was given by Richard Feynman.
He posed the question as to whether or not it would be
possible to shrink devices down to an atomic level. He
postulated that since there were no physical laws preventing such devices, at some point in the future they
would become a reality. While enumerating what could
be accomplished on an atomic level, he described the
concept of atomic memory. Feynman explained that if
125 atoms could somehow be made to store one bit of
data, then all the printed literature since the invention
of the printing press could be stored in a 0.1mm cube.
Today’s typical computer needs about
one million atoms to
store one bit of data.
DNA, which is nature’s mechanism for
only uses about 32
atoms to store one bit of information. Although DNA
has the potential of being an ideal substrate to store
information, there are some practical limitations. (See
Data Storage Issues: Part 3, DFI News, Summer 2014).
Ideally, a storage media that could store one bit of data
in a single atom with a few atoms used for delineations
between the bits would be the ultimate storage device.
• Over the past fifty years silicon transistor size has
Today’s typical com-
puter needs about one
million atoms to store
one bit of data.