Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Memory Mania

I'm going to take a break from scripture commentary to talk about another fascination of mine - All things technical. Specifically, this time, data. Years ago I saw a comic strip with a dimwit manager directing his subordinate tech support person to "download the internet on this diskette.” Recently I read two articles about advances in memory storage that "blew my mind.” The first was about the potential for storing one zettabyte of data in a gram of DNA. (The article and accompanying video in the foregoing link have discrepancies. The article first says a gram can store 5.5 petabytes and then says that equates to 700 terabytes. That is incorrect. It equates to 5,500 terabytes. In the video, the older gent says one gram can hold one zettabyte (which is 1 million times more capacity than a petabyte) but moments later the younger man states that it would take 4 grams to hold 1.8 zettabyte. None of the numbers mash up.) That technology still has a long way to go before it reaches the consumer market. Still, the potential is very impressive. A more recent article about a very promising technology stores much less than the proposed DNA storage, but it will probably hit the market first. It is a laser optical system capable of storing 360 terabytes on a single disk about the size of an American Silver dollar. Carry four of those things in your pocket and you'll easily have one petabyte of storage. (Currently, the largest-capacity portable, pocket-able, consumer drive is a 2-terabyte drive. So in approximately the same form-factor, this new system would be like carrying 180 of those 2-terabyte drives.)

All of that made me wonder what the largest databases in world might be. In 2008, Yahoo was estimated to be two petabytes. AT&T, as of 2014, was estimated at 323 terabytes. And YouTube came in at 45 Terabytes. That brought me full circle back to the comic strip. I wondered just how large the internet is today. The answer: Over one Yottabyte! To put that into perspective. if you could carry 1 billion portable drives, each with the capacity of one terabyte, you might be able to download the whole internet. (See this article for understanding kilo-, mega-, giga-byte and more.)

As fascinating as all this is, we shouldn't forget how fast the consumer industry of storage options has grown. I remember when floppy disks were measured in kilobytes. Today, no one in their right mind would even think of carrying anything that small of capacity. When those floppies started storing 1.2 megabytes, we techs started carrying them in our shirt pockets to perform various tasks. Decades ago (probably the late 1980's) a friend bought a 40 megabyte internal hard drive to upgrade his system. I told him he was crazy. "No one will ever need that much storage!" Fast forward to today and I have a Smartphone with an auxiliary 64 gigabyte Micro SD card installed. Put into perspective, what I have in my phone is 1,600 times more storage than my friend had on his computer’s new harddrive in the 1980's. Not only capacity, but size is amazing -- My MicroSD card can be pressed between my thumb and first finger and disappear from view. My friend’s harddrive was the size of a brick and weighed in at several pounds. (My first exposure to a one terabyte drive was back on the mid 1990's when, as the graveyard data center operator for a hospital, I started my nightly data backups on the newly installed drive. Back then, it must have cost the hospital a fortune. Today, one-terabyte portable consumer drives can be had for under $60.)

And what do I have for a computer today? It is a laptop with a built-in one terabyte drive (HDD). It also has a dedicated SD slot and USB ports, In the SD slot I use a 128 gigabyte micro SD card (with adaptor). I use that for daily backups in case my internal drive crashes, On my keychain, I have 4 things: car key, house key, LED mini flashlight, and a 32 gigabyte USB flash drive. I use that one when visiting friends who want me to fix some spreadsheet issue. If I cannot Immediately fix it, I will copy it onto my USB drive and take it home. I mention all this to drive home the point that while upcoming storage technology may indeed seem mind boggling and more than any consumer would ever need, it is also true that the leaps and bounds we've made so far are just as impressive. Even 10 years ago, how many of us would have considered needing an external one-terabyte drive?

Side note: This article was quite literally handwritten (cursive) using my Smartphone, a stylus, and obviously handwriting recognition software that converts my writing to editable text. No worries about storage because I wrote it using Google Drive so I could access it on my PC later (to more easily add the links and more effectively proofread the document). Not that this short article would have caused any memory concerns, just that I used no local storage to complete the task.

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