Silicon Insider: The Persistence of Memory

There is nothing in the story of high-tech as astonishing -- or as uncelebrated -- as the story of memory.

Three years ago I used this column to pen an Ode to Memory, to the extraordinary people who have managed to take the most difficult of all computer technologies -- the storage of massive amounts of addressable information in the smallest possible place -- and somehow keep pushing the ball further and further downfield. Now, with a recent piece of news, I find myself doing it again.

This week, Hitachi announced that it is introducing a new three-and-a-half-inch hard disk drive capable of one terabit of storage. That's one trillion bits, folks, a number literally beyond human ken. It is equivalent to the total heartbeats in the lifetimes of 1,000 people, one-sixth the number of miles in a light year, somewhere near the total population of all the insects on earth, and 10 times the number of neurons in the human brain.

And that's on one disk. Multiply it by the several million drives Hitachi is likely to build over the lifetime of this product, beginning with its first shipments later this year, and you are looking at a total storage capacity for the production run roughly equal to a one followed by 15 zeros (that's a quintillion bits of storage).

The key to this jump in storage capacity is Hitachi's use of a revolutionary new way of storing the bits on the disk surface vertically, compared to the traditional horizontal recording of current drives. This "perpendicular" recording enables the new Hitachi drive to enjoy 230 gigabytes of recording space per square inch, nearly twice that of current drives.

And you can be sure that is only the beginning. A real memory technology breakthrough like this one can ultimately lead to two or three orders of magnitude improvement in storage over the course of the next decade. In other words, in the next few years we could see the first petabit disk drives on large computers, with that capacity migrating to personal computers a few years later. These are numbers so great that just thinking about them can make your head explode.

Memory No Longer a Limitation

What makes this achievement so stunning to me is that it was never supposed to happen. When I was a cub reporter 25 years ago, I was solemnly informed by industry experts that the one factor that would soon grind the entire electronics revolution to a halt was memory. Logic, it seemed, could go on almost forever -- Moore's Law predicted it. And it wasn't hard to see how the planar manufacturing technique -- that is, the use of a photolithographic process to etch miniaturized circuits on the surface of a silicon chip -- could go on almost indefinitely. Sure there might be a few fabrication challenges along the way … and ultimately the laws of physics themselves might get in the way … but the path was clear, and the solutions didn't seem beyond the imaginations of the lab guys at Intel, Motorola and IBM.

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