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The data capacity gap: Why the world is running out of storage space

The world is running out of space. Data space, that is. In December 2013, Gartner forecast that the number of connected devices in use (not including the many billions of PCs, tablets and smartphones), will grow from 0.9 billion in 2009 to 26 billion units in 2020.

The total amount of digital data generated in 2013 was about 3.5 zettabytes (3.5 billion terabytes). By 2020, the world will generate 40 zettabytes of data annually: that's roughly the equivalent of one million photographs or 1500 HD movies, for every single person on the planet.

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This approaching tsunami of data will start pushing the world's data centres to their limits as early as 2016.

Unfortunately, the oncoming capacity gap between demand and production is not a problem that can easily be solved. Simply producing more hard drives and building more data centres isn't the answer. The fact of the matter is that it's far harder to manufacture zettabytes of capacity than it is to generate zettabytes of data. Building factory capacity that is capable of matching the scale of such spectacular demand would take hundreds of billions in investment.

Another concern is that, even if the investment were there and huge new data centres could be ready to leap into action, it's also becoming harder on a molecular level to keep squeezing increasing volumes of information onto the same amount of space.

It all started so well

In 1979, Seagate produced its first ever hard drive: it had 5MB of storage, cost a few months' wages and could save about two seconds of low resolution video shot on one of today's smartphones, or two photos. Today, a 5TB hard drive (which you can pick up for under £200) can store 2 million smartphone photos, 2.5 million songs and about 1,000 movies. Although it's not any bigger than that very early Seagate hard drive in size, in capacity it's actually a million times bigger. If the world had made the same advances in engine fuel economy over the past 38 years, on a single tank we could now drive the distance to Jupiter and back.

While the ability to squeeze ever more dense data onto the same amount of space is a real testament to human ingenuity and engineering, it's starting to reach the point where new technologies will have to take over. Silicon may be the work-horse that has helped us get to where we are today, but it's starting to show its limitations. Fortunately, new technologies are on their way.

From breakthroughs in the low-cost, highly-efficient production of RRAM (resistive random-access memory), to our own work on HAMR (heat-assisted magnetic recording) technology, there is much innovation and research being done. It seems certain that these products, or maybe another soon to be discovered, will close the data capacity gap entirely.

Averting data disaster

In the meantime, businesses can do much to manage their own need for storage. For CIOs in particular, storage is something that must be carefully factored into both long and short-term business plans.

Businesses will soon be face a catch-22 situation. Data is valuable but in order to keep it safe and stored there must be capacity. In order to drive the most value from that stored data, it must also be saved in such a way as to be quick to access, efficient to manage, and low-cost to maintain. At the moment, data centres are not equipped to be able to handle the anticipated influx, nor geared towards feeding it smoothly across to the analytics platforms where it can prove its worth.

One of the most useful methods of storage is a tiered model. This model utilises a more efficient capacity-tier based on pure object storage at the drive level, and above this a combination of high performance HDD (hard disk drives), SSHD (solid state hybrid) and SSD (solid state drives).

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This SSHD hybrid technology has been used successfully in laptops and desktop computers for years but today it is only just beginning to be considered for enterprise-scale data centres. The combination of storage drives allows the most critical data to sit on the more expensive SSDs or hybrids, where it is quick and easy to access. The less important bulk data sits on lower-cost HDDs where it is still available and secure, but slower to process.

At the moment the industry is in the very early stages of implementing this new method for enterprise, however this is a trend I expect to briskly pick up pace. As the need for faster and more efficient storage becomes more pressing, we must all look to make smart plans for the inevitable data deluge.

Mark Whitby is the vice president of EMEA at Seagate