Trying to outpace quickly growing demand

We’ve come a long way since the punch cards of decades past. IBM Corp. first commercially introduced data storage in 1967, and since then storage densities have increased more than one million times. Nevertheless, the explosion of e-business data is putting the crunch on enterprise storage; capacities are quickly becoming exhausted under the attempt to manage the information glut.

In fact, a recent InfoWorld (US) Enterprise Storage survey revealed that nearly half of all respondents ranked storage concerns as a business-critical priority.

Storage vendors are scrambling to extend the life span of magnetic disk drives by supplementing them with new technologies. For example, backed by support from companies such as Quantum and Maxell, TeraStor is forging an optical hybrid that could improve enterprise storage capacities sevenfold. Other approaches include looking for smaller magnetic material to coat drive surfaces and pack more bits into the same amount of space.

Hard drive manufacturers are also adapting new component technologies to the task in an effort to increase drive speeds. IBM is even working on a variation of punch card storage, using a souped-up polymer and heated stylus to store microscopic indentations on a plastic surface, comparable to a vinyl LP. With lower costs and improved storage capacity, it could prove an alternative to magnetic storage in meeting future storage needs.

But the magnitude of storage and accessibility necessary for tomorrow’s enterprise demands a radical re-thinking of storage and its media. Enter holographic storage imaging.

First proposed in the early 1960s, the elusive holographic storage is finally showing signs of maturing into a viable technology.

These data-storage systems employ holographic techniques using two lasers. One laser serves as a data beam and the other as a variable reference beam; the two act together to imprint data on a crystalline medium. Holographic storage would allow for trillions of bytes of data to be stored in the space of a standard CD.

Beyond sheer data capacity, holographic memory offers write and retrieval speeds that far exceed anything possible with traditional magnetic storage methods. With inertialess lasers, data can be read at rates on the order of a billion bits per second. Access speeds in lab testing under way at universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford are being measured in microseconds, rather than the milliseconds it takes to shuttle an actuator across today’s conventional hard disks.

Of practical use to businesses, holographic storage promises particular advantages, namely faster access and delivery of mission-critical data in e-commerce scenarios. With laser-speed mining of large data warehouses, employees will also be empowered to make rapid decisions vital to refining business rules and processes.

CD recording technology is also making great strides. TDK Electronics recently announced that it is piloting a triple-density CD technology known as MultiLevel (ML) Recording.

This new format introduces the variable of “reflectivity” to the equation. By varying the level of reflection on the surface of a CD, ML discs can fit eight bits into the same space that was previously occupied by only a single bit. This process increases the storage capacity of an ordinary 4.72-inch CD, which is typically capable of holding 650MB of data, to 2GB.

On the distant horizon are technologies such as atomic resolution storage (ARS). Research is currently under way in labs at IBM and Hewlett-Packard on a probe storage technology to make it possible for terabytes of data to fill a space the size of a postage stamp using read/write heads no larger than a single atom. The technology faces numerous stumbling blocks, however, that will likely impede marketability for at least another decade.

James R. Borck is managing analyst in the InfoWorld (US) Test Center covering e-business solutions for enterprise computing. He can be reached at