Data Storage Technologies of the Future

October 6th, 2015

Backblaze Dat Storage Technologies of the Future

If someone from the future–two decades or two centuries from now–traveled back in time to today, they’d probably chuckle at our use of hard drives and USB sticks, the way we now wonder how we ever survived with floppy disks and Zip drives. Want a peek at the kinds of storage devices we’ll be using in the future? From helium hard drives to DNA digital storage, here’s what the future of data storage technology might look like.

Inventors and researchers continue to push the envelope when it comes to capacity, performance, and the physical size of our storage media. Today, Backblaze stores 150 petabytes of customer data in its data centers, but in the future, they’ll likely be able to store an almost incomprehensible amount data–zettabytes if not domegemegrottebytes. (Nice names, right? A petabyte is equivalent to one million gigabytes, a zettabyte equals one million petabytes, and a domegemegrottebyte equals 1,000 zettabytes.) With the human race creating and saving an exponential amount of data, this is a great thing and the future of data storage is pretty exciting. Here are a few of the emerging storage technologies that may be signs of what’s on the horizon.

Helium Drives

Helium-filled hard drives have lately been pushing the capacity boundaries of hard drives, which are typically filled with air. Last September, Western Digital announced the world’s first 10TB hard drive, just a few weeks after Seagate announced its 8TB air-filled hard drive (the largest hard drive at the time). By using helium instead of air, helium-filled drives use less power to spin the disks (which spin more easily thanks to less resistance compared to air), they run cooler, and they can pack in more disks. This summer, Backblaze created a 360TB Storage Pod with 45 HGST 8TB drives and found these to be tops for data load tests. At $0.068 per GB for the 8TB HGST helium drive (about $550 on Amazon. Seagate helium drives have a lower cost per GB, however), the technology is still expensive. Still, these high performance drives will likely only get cheaper and even more expansive–perhaps affordable enough even for consumer use.

Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR)

SMR is a new hard drive recording technology. As with helium-filled drives, SMR technology allows for higher capacity on hard drives than traditional storage methods. As Seagate explains it:

SMR achieves higher areal densities by squeezing tracks closer together. Tracks overlap one another, like shingles on a roof, allowing more data to be written to the same space. As new data is written, the drive tracks are trimmed, or shingled. Because the reader element on the drive head is smaller than the writer, all data can still be read off the trimmed track without compromise to data integrity or reliability. In addition, traditional reader and writer elements can be used for SMR. This does not require significant new production capital to be used in a product, and will enable SMR-enabled HDDs to help keep costs low.

In 2014, Seagate introduced the first SMR hard drive, which improved hard drive density by 25%. At $260 for 8TB (three cents per GB), it’s a cost-effective drive for backups and archiving–though not necessarily performance , since the drive only has a 5,900 rpm spindle speed.


Perhaps the strangest new storage technology of the future is DNA. Yes, the molecule that stores biological information could be used to store other kinds of data. Harvard researchers in 2012 were able to encode DNA with digital information, including a 53,400-word book in HTML, eleven JPEG images, and one JavaScript program. DNA offers incredible storage density, 2.2 petabytes per gram, which means that a DNA hard drive about the size of a teaspoon could fit all of the world’s data on it–every song ever composed, book ever written, video ever shared. Besides the space savings, DNA is ideal for long-term storage: While you’re lucky if your hard drive lasts four years and optical disks are susceptible to heat and humidity, lead Harvard researcher George Church says “You can drop DNA wherever you want, in the desert or your backyard, and it will be there 400,000 years later.”

DNA takes a long time to read and write to and, as you might imagine, the technology is still too expensive to be usable now. According to New Scientist, in one recent study the cost to encode 83 kilobytes was £1000 (about $1,500 US dollars). Still, scientists are encoding information into artificial DNA and adding it to bacteria. It’s like a sci-fi novel that’s currently being written and lived. DNA could be the ultimate eternal drive one day.

Other Futuristic Storage Technologies

Not all innovative storage technologies end up becoming mainstream or widely used beyond just research, of course.

Scientists and tech companies have been working on holographic data storage for at least a decade. In 2011, GE demonstrated its holographic discs storage: DVD-sized disks that could store 500GB thanks to cramming the data onto layers of tiny holograms (unlike Blu-Ray discs, which store data just on the surface). These discs also had a relatively long lifespan prediction of 30 or more years. Not much has been said about the Holographic Virtual Disc (HVD) lately, though, and one of the biggest developers of the holographic drives, InPhase Technologies, went bankrupt in 2010. That’s not to say the technology won’t be a prominent storage technology in the future (what says “future” more than “holographic” anyway?).

Well, maybe quantum storage. Scientists are currently investigating ways to store data using quantum physics-e.g., a bit of data attached to the spin of an electron. Right now this technology can only store tiny amounts of data for a very short amount of time (not even a day yet), but if it works and takes off, we could see instant data syncing between two points anywhere, thanks to quantum entanglement.

Wonder what they’ll come up with next.

Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

[Guest Blogger] Melanie Pinola is a freelance writer and author covering all things tech-related. When she's not writing about backups, she enjoys traveling, reading, and continuing her quest to find the perfect fried chicken.
Follow Melanie: @melaniepinola | LinkedIn | Facebook
  • Mike Magnum

    Helium Drives? What going to stop them from floating off the shelves.

    • Michiel van der Blonk

      or watching a Jason Statham movie where he sounds like mickey mouse.

  • jp

    i think your sizes are a bit off. 1000 zettabytes is a yottabyte followed by xenottabyte,shilentnobyte then domegemegrottebyte. so a billion zettabytes is a domegemegrottebyte. By the way I apologize for any misspellings. chrome’s spellchecker doesn’t go above petabyte apparently

  • Mike Mullen
  • Domain Rider

    Quantum entanglement won’t allow instant data syncing between two points anywhere; it doesn’t allow instant transfer of information (and it’s a one-time effect).

    • falde

      Wasn’t your comment written after it was proved wrong? There is now experimental evidence that it is possible.

      However it is not necessarily instant transfer as “transfer” implies that information moved a distance between two points. Rather the available data suggests that the entanglement phenomena seams to exits in two locations at once. A single entanglement in two different locations. But this is just speculation we actually have no idea what’s really going on.

      • Domain Rider

        Last I heard, instant information transfer would break causality – but entanglement does seem to be non-local. Thing is, you can’t specify the state of the entangled particle you send, it’s (apparently) random. You don’t know which you’ve got until you measure it, which instantly resolves the entanglement, but doesn’t help you send information.

  • Seagate has been developing HAMR (heat assisted magnetic recording) hard drives to get capacities up to 30TB.

    Even better Toshiba recently announced 128TB SSD capacities by 2018 with their new QLC tech:

    Flash storage with 3D Nand and X-Point has potential to keep growing exponentially without worrying about exotic materials or strategies for now.

    • Michiel van der Blonk

      I can envision a great commercial: Stop. HAMR time!

  • Edwin Herdman

    Interesting article, though I’d date serious holographic media research to the ’70s.

    Information storage based on entanglement asks totally different questions than research into faster-than-light (aka superluminal) technology. While there’s definitely not been an experiment that disproves the possibility of FTL, every one of the experiments that has been tried over decades has upheld Einstein’s universal speed limit. There may never be a compelling answer, as the Times article says, but that doesn’t mean a loophole is available to us.

    It’s quite plausible that it could eventually become a wildly successful storage technology for temporary storage of encryption keys, for secure data boxes, or even for general storage, without us ever gaining any FTL technologies at all. It just would be limited in data transfers to the speed of light. It’s also worth noting that the related SyFy-sounding terms like “quantum teleportation” don’t do superluminal (FTL) communication or teleportation – it just means copying quantum information from one place to another, with slower-than-light communication being required.

    The easiest way to think about all this is that the “spooky action at a distance” has been shown, time and time again, defeating our attempts to get information over distances at faster-than-light speeds, even sometimes appearing to alter the past in order to accomplish this (look up the

    Elitzur–Vaidman bomb tester and the delayed choice quantum eraser experiments for details).

    There is a more interesting question behind all this: Does the future hold continued technological progress even far into the future, or are we hitting diminishing gains and eventually hard limits in trying to refine technology based on well-understood theories? The economics and known science suggests the latter, but on the other hand we only need one loophole to break through the wall.

    • falde

      FTL isn’t superluminal. Something superluminal moves a distance faster than light. There are a number of theoretical FTL technologies that do not move a distance faster than light, but rather shortens the distance.

      FTL communication has been experimentally demonstrated but there are no evidence that this actually breaks Einsteins universal speed limit. To break it it requires information to travel. If information simply just exist at the two places at once there may not be any traveling going on, and the speed limit does not apply.

      The last question can only be answered far into the future…

      • Edwin Herdman

        As far as I can see, “superluminal” and “FTL” are direct synonyms, always have been. Granted, you can talk about what can be properly called “effective” FTL where you could use distorted spacetime.

        As for your argument that FTL communication has been demonstrated, it’s one thing to preserve matter in an unknown state, and it’s another thing to be able to read that state (Heisenberg, Schrodinger’s Cat, etc.). Entangled particles separated by a distance don’t demonstrate FTL communication at all, and any communication is done subluminally. Likewise I would say that you don’t have information at all if it can’t be communicated, so I don’t think it’s useful to try and distinguish between communication and information as you have.