From the editor's desk: The digital deluge

May 2024 News

Kim Roberts, Editor.

One of the issues arising out of our newfound ability to generate our own electricity is the ability to store it. BESS systems are the order of the day, and we regularly run stories on this new development. But, there’s another kind of storage, which is also becoming increasingly critical, and that’s data storage.

Big data is getting bigger

The world has a data storage problem. The volume of data being generated and stored is growing exponentially. Our reliance on data and digital storage has never been greater. Data is streaming onto the web from billions of devices. Every click, swipe, like and share contributes to the huge pool of digital information. New technologies like AI, NLP and deep neural networks are compounding this deluge.

All this information needs to be stored somewhere, and the demand for storage is overtaking the available supply. The days when a floppy disk, stiffy, CD, hard drive or SSD could store your information are long gone. Nowadays it’s the cloud. But the cloud is in reality someone else’s computer in a data centre with a finite capacity. The data is eventually archived, mainly on magnetic tape, and this has a limited lifespan. So all the data we have already stored digitally is at risk of being lost in obsolescence.

Gartner warns of the ‘digital wall’ that traditional computing technologies will face as early as 2025, and predicts that by 2030 the shortfall in organisational storage capacity could amount to nearly two-thirds of demand. Fortunately, we are an enterprising species, and organisations are beginning to test emerging storage technologies such as DNA storage, glass storage, neuromorphic computing, and extreme parallelism. I must admit that all of these are new to me, but DNA storage attracted my attention, so I decided to investigate further.

It’s all in the DNA

DNA encodes the genetic instructions for all living organisms, and its compactness, longevity, and information density make it ideal for data storage. Recent advancements in biotechnology, coupled with plummeting costs, are moving this technology from theory to reality.

Decades ago we learned to sequence and synthesise DNA, that is to read and write it. Each position in a single strand of DNA consists of one of four nucleic acids, known as bases, and is represented as A, T, G and C. In DNA storage, digital data that would be stored as 0s and 1s on a hard drive is instead encoded as a 0 or 1 on each of the four bases.

DNA is cheap, readily available and stable at room temperature for millennia. One of its features is its data density. A single gram of DNA is capable of storing billions of gigabytes of data. It has been calculated that all the information on the internet, which one estimate puts at 120 zettabytes, could be stored in a volume of DNA about the size of a sugar cube (a zettabyte is 270 bytes, or a billion terrabytes).

DNA also has unequalled longevity. While traditional storage media degrade over time, DNA can remain intact for thousands of years. This makes it ideal for archiving critical information such as historical records or scientific data, so that it remains accessible for future generations. It’s also incredibly energy-efficient compared to traditional methods. Once information is encoded into DNA molecules it requires no power to maintain, unlike today’s data centres that consume vast amounts of electricity for cooling.

Of course, there are challenges. Storing information in DNA is easily achievable. The hard part is getting the information into and out of the molecule in an economically viable way. This is already happening. In 2018, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington built the first prototype of a machine that could write, store, and read data on a DNA strand.

One hurdle is the cost of synthesising and sequencing the DNA. The price for sequencing has dropped from $25 a base in 1990 to less than a millionth of a cent in 2024, but this is still too high for large-scale adoption. But humans have done this before. Exponential growth in silicon-based technology is the reason why we wound up producing so much data. Similar exponential growth can make the transition to DNA storage happen.

Looking ahead, from long-term archival storage to ultra-secure data encryption, the possibilities are limited only by our imagination. Imagine a world where the entirety of human knowledge fits in the palm of your hand, where information is preserved for millennia, and where data centres are powered by the building blocks of life. This is the promise of DNA storage.


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