My Dog Ate My (Storage) Home Work

Could the future of storage be in plastics?

Not long ago, someone wrote to this column requesting that I dedicate a couple of lines to burgeoning data storage science from time to time. The reader noted that vendors are dumping a lot of money into research and development, but he wasn’t seeing anything new on the market. “Why don’t you do some looking around and tell us what all that money is being used for?” he requested.

Always up to a reader challenge, we did some investigating and discovered how at least some R&D bucks are being spent. You might be surprised.

It seems a number of universities and research labs have been working on ways to record data into living cells. At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and at several other research labs around the globe, scientists have successfully written data into the DNA strands in living cellular tissue. Now, it isn’t a lot of data: only about 8-10K. But cells are really small, so you can use a lot of them to store a lot of data in a pretty compact amount of space.

The researchers at PNNL and elsewhere write their data—in one test case, the text of the children’s song, It’s a Small World (we’re not joking)—as artificial DNA sequences. Then, they add these data-laden sequences to bacteria DNA. The bacteria are allowed to multiply, then the scientists extract the message-encoded portion of a DNA strand and read the message back.

The only problem with the technique (aside from the technical effort required to read and write DNA strands) is mutation. Radiation, as any fan of 1950s sci-fi movies already knows, causes living cells to mutate. This, in turn, can have the unfortunate consequence of turning the stored Walt Disney lyric into something out of a Marilyn Manson CD. The problem of mutation has pressed scientists to use radiation-resistant bacteria for their data storage experiments, postulating that the encoded information would be sufficiently resilient to withstand a short-term thermonuclear war—even if there was no one around afterwards to send or receive an e-mail.

Of course, very few of us can conceive of buying our data storage by the Petri dish from CompUSA or Dell or HP, either today or in the foreseeable future. But, what if we began using the cells of household pets to store our mission-critical data?

Now, before PETA starts forming picket lines, know that genetic encoding of data causes no harm to animals. Heck, it’s the way that nature has been storing data for many millennia. Using household pets to store data would have the added advantage of encouraging many people to treat their pets with a lot more respect.

Picture the marketing ads. A man walking a dog: portable storage. A man walking two dogs: redundant portable storage. A man walking with a dog and a cat: heterogeneous storage. An aquarium full of goldfish: a storage pool. A flock of geese: networked storage. A Doberman Pincer or Pit Bull: secure storage. A dog hit by a car: a head crash. A puppy chasing its own tail until it falls down in exhaustion: a SAN. A nightcrawler: WORM (write once read many) storage. Dare I go on?

Vegetarians might prefer to use storage devices that have no face, of course. So, there could be all-natural yogurt in a cup: an unformatted drive. Or there’s always Apple.

All jokes aside, we are interested to see how many research labs are beginning to look outside conventional storage modalities in their quest for the next generation storage device. Even Microsoft top guy Bill Gates has already speculated that the disk drive as we know it will shortly become a dinosaur. He may not have had cellular DNA in mind when he said it, of course, but rather chip-based memory.

Solid state disk drives—components performing the same function as magnetic disk drives, but constructed from memory chips with no moving parts—are as old as computers themselves. SSDs have used successfully to perform certain functions that benefit from their extremely high I/O rates. Encryption/decryption, IP stack processing offload, and certain other tasks have proven well-suited to SSD-based acceleration.

The drawback of SSD systems, however, has always been their price. The popularity of these products rises and falls with the price of their key component: the chip itself.

Like disks, chips have gotten smaller and more capacious over the years. But, for all the improvements in wafer and lithographic technology, SSDs haven’t dropped to anywhere near the cost per GB of their spinning-platter cousins.

This may change in the near future with the advent of conductive polymer-based chip technology. What’s that? Simply put, conductive polymer is plastic that conducts electricity.

Plastic is commonly used for its non-conductive properties, as insulation around copper wires, for example. The phenomenon of electrical conductance in certain formulations of plastic was observed in a laboratory a few years ago, then reproduced and documented, and eventually scored a Nobel Prize in chemistry for the observant scientists who noticed it.

So, what’s the advantage of conductive polymer? Well, imagine the impact of eliminating the costly bother of growing and layering gallium arsenide or silicate crystals to create a memory stick. Replace the image of guys in space suits working with electron microscopes and vacuum interoceters with a picture of low-cost plastic chips rolling off in easy-to-cut sheets from an assembly line that doesn’t require a clean-room environment at all.

Mass production would quickly drive the cost out of chip manufacturing, effectively enabling the replacement of all magnetic media with SSDs built from chips that cost pennies apiece instead of tens of dollars. In truth, it would be the end of storage as we know it.

Now, imagine a string of plastic chips that provided both the network cable interconnecting two servers and the mass storage for both servers. To paraphrase Scott McNealy, the network would become the storage array.

The plastic chip is already in production, used with some children’s toys today. However, the chips aren’t very resilient, lasting only as long as the kid’s birthday celebration or until exhausted mini-me’s put their heads down on their pillows at the end of an exciting Christmas Day.

Real computing requires that these gizmos be made of sterner stuff. There is no shortage of engineering types working to make it so.

Maybe the perfect storage device will eventually be a virtual dog made of plastic chips. That way, when the dog eats your homework, you could literally make him give it back.


About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.