Data is being generated at an exponential rate, with IDC predicting that the global datasphere will grow from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 zettabytes by 2025. As a result, the demand for computer storage solutions continues to grow. Data storage has become a critical part of computing infrastructure and emerging technologies. New storage technologies are continuously being developed to keep pace with the world’s data growth.
Computer data storage, also known as digital data storage, is a technology consisting of computer components and recording media that retain digital data. It is a core function and fundamental component of computers.
Data storage allows information to be accessed after it is produced. Computers represent data using the binary numeral system, which uses 0s and 1s to represent information. Each 0 or 1 is called a bit. Groups of 8 bits are combined into a byte. Storage capacity is generally measured in bytes or multiples thereof.
This continued growth of data is driving innovation in storage technologies and architectures. Emerging solutions like DNA data storage, holographic data storage, and storage class memory promise enormous leaps in capacity, speed, durability and energy efficiency.
This article provides an overview of emerging trends and innovations set to shape the future of computer data storage and enable the world’s continued exponential data growth.
Hard Disk Drives
Hard disk drives (HDDs) have been the dominant form of computer data storage since the 1960s. HDDs store data on spinning magnetic disks, with data read by a movable arm with read/write heads (ITIF, 2019). HDD capacities have grown enormously, from just a few megabytes in the 1980s to today’s largest at 20 terabytes (ITIF, 2019). However, HDDs face physical limits for how densely data can be stored and how fast disks can spin.
Some new HDD technologies aim to push these limits. Shingled magnetic recording (SMR) overlaps tracks on a platter like shingles on a roof to increase density. Heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) uses lasers to temporarily heat sections of the platter to allow further density increases (Seagate, 2021). Topolo and microwave assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) are other approaches. However, HDDs face stiff competition from flash storage.
While HDDs continue dominating cold storage, their future role in other applications looks uncertain. SSDs are taking over more performance-sensitive and portable uses. Online and cloud storage reduce the need for large local HDDs. Though HDDs will remain relevant for some time, their heyday has likely passed.
Seagate. (2021). The Advantages of Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording. https://www.seagate.com/in/en/our-story/data-is-power/what-is-hamr-master-ti/
ITIF. (2019). Why Data Storage Technology Matters. https://itif.org/publications/2019/06/24/why-data-storage-technology-matters-memory-storage-and-their-role-driving-productivity
Solid State Drives
Solid state drives (SSDs) use flash memory instead of spinning platters to store data. Unlike traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), SSDs have no moving parts, making them more durable, energy efficient, and faster. The first SSDs were introduced in the 1970s but did not gain mainstream adoption until around 2010 when prices started to drop dramatically.
Today, SSDs are available in capacities up to 100TB, compared to 20TB for high-capacity HDDs. SSDs are significantly faster for reading and writing data, with max speeds over 3,000 MB/s compared to 200-300 MB/s for HDDs. Their lack of moving parts also makes SSDs quieter, more power efficient, and less prone to failure due to shock or vibration.
Emerging SSD technologies like 3D NAND stacking memory cells vertically instead of horizontally allow for greater densities and lower costs. Other innovations like QLC (quad-level cell) flash cram more bits into each memory cell. NVMe is a faster interface optimized specifically for SSDs compared to older interfaces like SATA.
SSD costs continue to decrease while maximum capacities increase. As a result, SSDs will likely replace HDDs for most consumer applications in the future. Enterprise and data centers are already transitioning primarily to SSD storage. The outlook for SSDs is strong as they offer performance, reliability, and efficiency advantages over traditional hard drives.
Magnetic tape has been used for data storage since the 1950s. For decades, it was a primary medium for backup and archival storage. While other technologies have overtaken tape for day-to-day operations, it remains a crucial component of the storage hierarchy due to its portability, durability, capacity, and low cost per gigabyte (Sources: TechTarget, Tech Monitor).
Today’s LTO (Linear Tape-Open) technology provides up to 45 TB of uncompressed capacity per cartridge and data transfer speeds up to 400 MB/sec (Sources: TechTarget, Horizon Technology). The LTO roadmap outlines plans to reach capacities of 148 TB per tape and speeds of 1.1 GB/sec by 2030 (Source: Horizon Technology).
While primarily used for backup and archiving “cold” data today, tape’s reliability, density, and low cost position it to play an expanding role for secondary storage into the future (Sources: Tech Monitor, Horizon Technology). Continued innovation is expected to sustain tape as an affordable option for long-term data retention for decades to come.
Optical storage like CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs were once very popular for consumer use but have declined as streaming and downloads have become more prevalent. However, optical discs are still valued for archival and backup purposes due to their stability and longevity compared to other formats. According to research from Indiana University, optical storage has an important role for sustainable audiovisual collections due to the availability of professional read/write drives with write-verification.
While CDs and DVDs are declining, Blu-ray offers substantially more storage capacity and continues to have niche uses. There is also research into potential future optical technologies that could greatly expand capabilities. For example, a US startup is developing an innovative 1TB optical disc using hundreds of layers that could replace Blu-ray for archival physical media.  Other nascent research areas like holographic optical storage could one day enable substantially denser optical storage. However, these emerging technologies face challenges to become commercially viable.
Cloud storage refers to the storage of data online in the cloud, on remote servers accessed over the internet. Rather than storing files locally on physical devices, cloud storage allows users to save files and data in a remote database. The leading benefits of cloud storage include accessibility from anywhere with an internet connection, unlimited capacity, and data backup and recovery services. Cloud storage adoption has risen rapidly, with 83% of enterprise workloads expected to be in the cloud by the end of 2024.
The top cloud storage providers include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Cloud, and Oracle Cloud. These providers offer services like object storage, block storage, file storage, and backup storage. Key innovations in cloud storage include greater security features, compliance certifications, and integration with other cloud services like analytics and AI.
The future of cloud storage looks bright, with the market projected to reach over $200 billion by 2025 according to IDC. As more data is created globally, the scalability and flexibility of cloud storage will become increasingly critical. Hybrid cloud models blending on-premises and cloud resources will likely be adopted by most organizations.
New Memory Technologies
There are several emerging alternatives to traditional memory technologies like DRAM and flash memory. Some key examples include:
Memristors – These are resistive memory devices that can retain information even when powered off, similar to flash memory. However, memristors are faster and could enable even greater storage density. They work by altering the resistance of certain materials like metal oxides when voltage is applied. HP has been a pioneer in developing memristor technology, but there are still challenges to overcome before wide adoption.
Magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM) – This uses magnetic storage elements instead of electric charge or current flows used by DRAM and SRAM. The magnetic elements retain data when power is off. Benefits include high speed, endurance, and low power usage. Companies like Everspin and Avalanche Technologies are commercializing MRAM products.
Phase Change Memory (PCM) – PCM relies on changing the physical state of certain materials from crystalline to amorphous. Intel and Micron partnered to produce 3D XPoint as the first commercially available PCM product with competitive speeds to flash memory. Adoption is still gradual as costs decline.
These new memory technologies are still in relatively early stages. Most experts believe widespread adoption is still 5-10 years away, as reliability improves and costs decrease through manufacturing advances. But their potential to revolutionize computer memory and storage is clear. They promise to bring new capabilities beyond what is possible with longstanding memory technologies like DRAM and flash.
Storage Class Memory
Storage Class Memory (SCM), also known as persistent memory, is a technology that combines the benefits of traditional storage with the speed of RAM . SCM fills the gap between storage and memory, acting as mass high-performance storage. Some example SCM technologies are 3D XPoint from Intel and Micron, and Magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM) .
Unlike DRAM which is volatile, SCM retains data after power loss. Compared to SSDs, SCM provides lower latency and higher endurance. Intel claims its Optane SCM has 10x lower latency than NAND flash and performs reads and writes at the byte-level instead of the block-level like SSDs . This makes SCM well-suited for write-intensive and latency-sensitive workloads.
The Storage Class Memory market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 35.6% from 2022-2030, driven by high demand from enterprise storage and server applications . As SCM matures, it has the potential to revolutionize storage architecture and enable new technologies like storage-class memory-based databases and near-memory computing.
Quantum computing leverages the properties of quantum physics to perform calculations and process information in fundamentally different ways compared to classical computers. Quantum computers utilize quantum bits or “qubits” which can represent a 1, 0, or a quantum superposition of both states at the same time. This allows quantum computers to evaluate multiple possibilities simultaneously.
Quantum computing has major implications for the future of data storage and security. One area it may vastly impact is cryptography and data encryption. Many current encryption standards like RSA rely on the difficulty of factoring large prime numbers, which quantum computers could potentially do quite efficiently, breaking much of today’s encryption. New quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms will need to be developed.
In terms of storage, quantum computing introduces entirely new paradigms. Quantum memory based on quantum physics allows data to be stored in qubits, which have unique properties. While promising, quantum memory today can only store data for very brief durations such as milliseconds. Active research is underway on developing practical quantum memory devices and addressing issues like error correction. If realized, quantum memory could enable exponentially denser storage compared to existing solutions. The unique attributes of quantum computing will necessitate rethinking how data storage and security are handled.
Overall, quantum computing promises revolutionary gains in processing power along with new approaches to storing and securing data. While still an emerging field, quantum computing may lead to profound changes in future computer architectures. Significant research and development is still needed to realize many of its theoretical possibilities and bring quantum computing into the mainstream.
In summary, key storage technologies going forward will likely include continued development of advanced solid state drives, storage class memory like 3D XPoint, and new optical and magnetic recording methods. Quantum computing may also open revolutionary possibilities. The continued exponential growth of data is driving rapid innovation to meet demands for greater speed, capacity, security, and cost-efficiency in data storage.
Hard disk drives will still play a major role, while solid state drives replace them in many use cases needing higher performance. Flash storage will see capacity increases through 96-layer and higher 3D NAND chips. As SSDs consume less power and drop in price, they will continue displacing HDDs. Optical, holographic, and quantum optical storage offer prospects for much greater capacities than existing solutions.
Emerging memory technologies like Storage Class Memory (SCM) bridges the gap between DRAM and NAND. It offers performance close to DRAM with the persistence of flash storage. Tech like 3D XPoint, Z-SSD, and MRAM promise the benefits of both memory and storage in one device.These new storage class memories will likely complement flash and HDDs in next-gen data centers.
Demand for ever greater storage capacities, speed, security, and affordability will fuel ongoing waves of innovation. The world’s exponentially growing data will require revolutionary advances to store, secure, analyze, and draw insights from humanity’s immense and expanding digital footprint.