E-Storage Futures

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-05-14 Print this article Print

Future-proofing your e-business data capacity and access strategy.

Theres a reason why enterprise storage investments are among the least-soft sectors of IT spending. Its almost impossible for any organization to know too much.

Even in industry sectors that dont seem strongly data-driven, its knowledge that creates competitive advantage. The strategic assets of a company such as Exxon Mobil Corp. arent so much the oil in the ground as they are the costly logging of data from test wells, identifying where production drilling will pay. The critical assets of an e-business are the records that offer insight into how a Web site visitor is transformed into a buyer—and a first-time buyer developed into a lucrative long-term customer.

Storage must be measured not just in gross terms of capacity but also in net terms of useful access vs. cost. Capacity measures how much can be known, but speed measures how much that knowledge is worth; density measures the overhead of knowledge upkeep; longevity of various storage media determines how long that knowledge will yield returns.

Capacity alone is hard pressed to keep up with the flood tide of new bits. An information-rich economy generates ever more data per person—current estimates are 250MB per person per year, doubling every year.

But mere quantity measures fail to reflect the increasing complexity of the tasks that storage systems are expected to perform. Raw data retrieval times continue to improve at impressive rates, but perhaps not quickly enough to offset more elaborate queries that involve a greater number of data relations.

The greatest distortion in simple measurements of storage capacity growth is in their failure to reflect the growing cost of duplicates. For every e-mail sent, every Usenet message posted, every new Windows device driver written and distributed, dozens or thousands or millions of copies soon occupy space along chains of servers or on uncountable separate workstations.

Its fortunate that magnetic hard disks have surpassed most 20th century projections as to their physical limits. But those limits likely do exist. Density growth may continue at present rates for another four years or so, but IBM researchers expect to encounter by 2005 a limit at 40G bits per square inch.

What next? Optical media, able to focus at varying depths on transparent/fluorescent layers, could enable parallel access to multiple data streams while storing a terabyte of data on a successor to the DVD. Holographic methods enable data retrieval based on content patterns rather than physical storage locations, potentially reducing the capacity and processing overheads of creating and maintaining database indices. Atomic Force Microscope technologies store hundreds of G bits per square inch with nanoscale mechanical media and probes (though data transfer speeds are as yet far from competitive).

The need for ever more storage will surely continue to drive invention.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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