Thursday 24 January 2013

More data storage than you could ever need?

Adam Michael

When I first built a PC, just over a decade ago, I installed a 180GB hard drive. “That’s more data storage than you’ll ever need,” the PC components specialist informed me.

And that’s precisely what I thought when reading about data storage in DNA; research from Nick Goldman and his team at the European Bioinformatics Institute published in today’s Nature. The approach would enable storing the data from a million hard drives, in just a few grams of DNA. Surely this is more storage than you’ll ever need?

But, rather than rely on gut instinct, I decided a quick recap on the capacity of data storage devices over the years would be a more rigorous approach to forming an opinion.

So, here’s a quick flashback through time, looking at data storage devices accessible to average consumers. At the start of the 1970s the first floppy disk (from IBM) stored 79 kilobytes (79kB) – admittedly this is a little shaky as a starting point, as no-one had computers at this point in time, but I needed to start somewhere.

By the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, we had progressed to the compact cassette, widely used for all home computers, with a 90 minute tape storing 660kB. Then through the 1980s the floppy disk became ubiquitous, and in its various forms progressed to 1.44 Megabytes (MB). We then moved to the compact disc, which again evolved over time, and in 1997 the first CD-RW (the read-write version) came into play, which could store 860MB. The CD rapidly became the DVD, the read-write version holding 1.5 Gigabytes (GB) and read-only version storing 4.7GB

Thus, in 2001 I when installed my 180GB hard drive, I could have stored my entire library of films and music in one small partition of the drive. Surely I was never going to fill this!

But, as we moved further into the new millennium solid state memory started to take hold, starting small with just 4GB, but very quickly progressing to 64GB; this memory is at the core of every smartphone, tablet, digital camera, and top end laptop. So now, just a few uploads from a camera with a full memory, a sync with my laptop, and a file exchange with the tablet and the 180GB hard drive is bursting at the seams.   

The pace didn’t stop there though, in 2009 Sony and SanDisk launched a 2 Terabyte (TB) solid state memory stick; and today, for less than £100 you can buy a 3TB hard drive for a PC.

Nick Goldman and his team estimate that a gram of their DNA storage system could hold around 2 PetaBytes (PB) which is 2000TB. Wow! But, history tells us, very clearly, that we need a 1000-fold increase in data storage every decade.

So, is DNA data storage more than you could ever need? Apparently not, indeed, it appears to have arrived just in time.

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