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Kevin Fogarty
Kevin Fogarty
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Does DNA Hold the Keys to the Future of Data Storage?

Remove storage as the biggest factor restricting the size of PC hardware, and you open up a whole new world of augmented reality.

Remember how cool the original iPod was in 2001? Remember how tiny it looked, considering the 5G bytes of music files you could put on it? It was big, though: 7.62 square inches total. In September 2010, the sixth-generation iPod Nano shipped, with 8G bytes or 16G bytes of storage space and a total physical size of 0.8 square inches.

Some of that size difference came from the IT industry's 60-year campaign of miniaturization, which started in a building full of ENIAC--a computer so large actual moths could fit inside to cause shorts and glitches and had to be removed by hand ... removed by technicians who could also fit inside ENIAC.

Get the comparison now? If DNA microchips do actually have a future as the highest-density digital-data storage devices ever, it won't take 60 years to turn them into commercial products. More like five years, or six.

Remember all the reports during the past few years about the rush to build new data centers because the old ones are overwhelmed? Gobs of storage are needed for the images, backups, configurations, policies and data for virtual desktops, virtual smartphones, virtual servers, virtual applications, virtual infrastructures and virtualized everything else in the consumerized enterprise.

What if all the space devoted to network-attached storage and storage area networks was suddenly not necessary because servers, NAS boxes and storage arrays had all shrunk down to one-one-hundredth of their original size? Or one one-thousandth?

Using the data density they already achieved, the Harvard team estimated in the paper they published in the Aug. 16 journal Science that they could not only fit the Internet on a flash drive, but also that they could fit all the digital data stored anywhere in the world onto chips using only 4 grams of artificial DNA, printed out using an ink-jet printer.

The size of the chips, efficiency of the storage process, its speed and the amount of synthetic DNA on each microchip will change too much by then to predict how many chips or how much space that would require.

Let's just say it would let you stick your whole SAN in a storage closet, if not on a single shelf.

Whether you'd call the resulting devices handheld, mobile, ubiquitous or anything at all when they're as invisible and omnipresent as air, none of them would require the same designs, desk layouts, physical-network wiring infrastructures or, almost certainly, the tangle of wires, pizza-boxes and chassis that pack the average server closet.

Next: IT After DNA Storage: Think Small

Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio
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