Punch cards, magnetic tape, vacuum tubes, magnetic disks, optical disks, flash drives, solid-state drives. Like that nasty neighbor with the shed, shop, and garage all bursting at the seams, it seems we just can’t get enough of the technology behind data storage. And we still want more!
Why do we need anything different?
The current options for data storage seem to be meeting our needs. They are inexpensive and readily available. So why do we continue to research a better way? One might argue that techies simply cannot stop researching. However, besides that one obvious fact, there are legitimate business reasons as to why this trend continues.
It is no secret that tech companies will always compete for market share. If the latest storage technology is more secure, with greater density, and brags of sexy new technology, their market share will grow. But believe it or not, there is a reason much more important than market share. We have been playing a game of Russian roulette with the lifespan of our data storage. We know the limitations of most storage media and we compensate with backups, 24/7/365 monitoring, and disk swapping. We don’t even really know the lifespan of optical storage. Some estimates are as high as 1,000 years, but more likely the longest lifespan of any known storage today is 100 years. Let’s consider when some well-known businesses were established. Bakers Chocolate was established in 1764, DuPont in 1802, and Colgate in 1806. Many major corporations have stood the test of time and they now trust the longevity of their data to the technology industry. We need to research and develop the next evolution of data storage, and we need to hurry up!
What is a DNA nucleotide?
As we know from watching literally any crime drama, our DNA is what makes us each unique. With today’s technology, our DNA can be extracted from pretty much any part of the body, intact or otherwise. Hair, skin, blood, saliva, urine, or spinal fluid. DNA can be extracted, and its owner can be identified. And while local television would make this seem intriguing and dramatic, the reality is that my last encounter with DNA was a property management request for all dog owners to submit a stool sample from their pet so that if “deposits” are left around the neighborhood, the culprit can be identified. This is truly a far cry from the drama of “Law and Order.”
DNA is made up of four chemical bases, each of which pair up and attaches themselves to both a sugar molecule and a phosphate molecule, thereby creating a nucleotide. The long strands that we see in images of DNA are the nucleotides and two nucleotides form a DNA strand. The bases form rungs between the strands, while the two molecules form the sides.
What is exciting is that the lifespan of DNA is virtually limitless. The tooth from an ancient rhinoceros supplied DNA that is 1.7 million years old, and human DNA has been extracted from a 430,000 year old sample. The news is very encouraging regarding the potential lifespan of DNA nucleotides for data storage.
How far along are we in our research?
All of us who live and breathe the world of technology know that the implementation of any technology is the end state after a very long and usually quite challenging road. People see the result and look at it as the entirety of a solution to a business problem, but it very seldom is. The implementation of DNA data storage is no different. The first development to be undertaken is that of synthetic DNA, and this is not solely for the purpose of DNA data storage. The applications for synthetic DNA are numerous, powerful, and amazing. In terms of data storage, the DNA we want to create is not like cloning a sheep or the family pet. These DNA strands have no template and are truly created from scratch.
The good news is that researchers are already there. The creation of synthetic DNA has been achieved and is already being used in the creation of the flu vaccine and synthetic antibiotics. There is tremendous potential to help fight disease, and research is being undertaken to recreate certain plant enzymes necessary for the creation of rubber. In addition, microorganisms have been developed that can convert agricultural waste into materials that can be used in the production of useful household products, and the list goes on.
In terms of data storage, data can indeed be stored on strands of synthesized DNA. In theory, this should end the problem of the storage media lifespan. However, we aren’t quite there. We now have the issue of cost. As with all new technology, synthesizing DNA is prohibitively expensive. In addition, the process is currently much too slow to handle the magnitude of data we produce. Fortunately, there are numerous active and well-funded organizations that have taken on this problem. Companies like Catalog, Twist, and Helixworks, are working to make the science of DNA storage an affordable reality.
What about storage capacity?
Headlines make grand statements about the capacity of storage that synthetic DNA will provide. Estimates range from stating all the data in the world can be stored on one drop of synthetic DNA to one cubic inch, to one room. What is for certain is that it will be millions of times more efficient than the data storage we use today.
Transitioning to the next era of data storage
While there are currently no confirmed timelines or at least none that have been publicly released, there is one thing for certain. We do know that there will be projects forthcoming to transition our current limited lifespan data storage to one with substantially improved reliability and longevity. In the meantime, we will continue to swap disks and monitor the activity of our data storage farms.
Featured image: Shutterstock