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Disk Drive Alternatives on the Boil

Labs, vendors, development groups are looking to shrink disk sizes dramatically

Imagine a SAN array the size of your notebook computer. A NAS no bigger than a thumbnail. A data center hosted on your desktop.

Far-fetched? Give it a decade. A range of emerging technologies is pointing the way to smaller, denser ways to store data, and at least one of them may wind up in commercial products within the foreseeable future. Here's a sampling:

  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has teamed with the University of Arizona in research that could help reduce the size of a magnetic hard drive by an order of magnitude, while increasing its capacity a hundredfold.

    The team has established a method of ensuring that nanodots, tiny magnetic particles assembled in microscopic arrays, will respond uniformly to magnetic forces. While making no claim to a breakthrough, U of A researcher Justin Shaw says this should smooth the way for other developers to create nanodot arrays to take the place of electrically controlled ones. Commercial ETA? Perhaps five to ten years.

  • Scientists at the Center for Magnetic Recording Research at the University of California at San Diego have a similar program focused on bit-patterned media. This research, which is sponsored by Fujitsu, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, Imation, Marvell, the National Security Agency, Seagate, ST Microelectronics, Toshiba, and Western Digital, is also branching out to explore the potential of coupled perpendicular recording, which enables higher density storage by using new ways for magnets to interact with bits of data stored on a disk.
  • The University of California at Los Angeles and the California Institute of Technology have published a paper describing the use of molecular computing techniques to create a superdense memory device, one capable of handling 100 billion bits per square centimeter.

    The research isn't ready for any prototypes. "At this point, it is still basic research; I think it's too soon to know what the applications will be," writes UCLA spokesman Stuart Wolpert in an email. Still, the possibilities are intriguing.

  • One of the wildest technologies in the works comes from the University of Rochester, where scientists have slowed down optical signals long enough to store an image using light. Funded primarily by DARPA, the research could lead to storing data using optical signals instead of electrical ones. This could speed up data processing substantially and improve storage density dramatically.

    According to physics professor John C. Howell, the project leader, it is years away from any sort of commercial application.

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