Two announcements had the Backblaze #social Slack channel blowing up this week, both related to “Storage Technologies of the Future.” The first reported “Video of Ceramic Storage System Surfaces Online” like some kind of UFO sighting. The second, somewhat more restrained announcement heralded the release of DNA storage cards available to the general public. Yep, you heard that right—coming to a Best Buy near you. (Not really. You absolutely have to special order these babies, but they ARE going to be for sale.)
We talked about DNA storage way back in 2015. It’s been nine years, so we thought it was high time to revisit the tech and dig into ceramics as well. (Pun intended.)
What Is DNA Storage?
The idea is elegant, really. What is DNA if not an organic, naturally occuring form of code?
DNA consists of four nucleotide bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G).
In DNA storage, information is encoded into sequences of these nucleotide bases. For example, A and C might represent 0, while T and G represent 1. This encoding allows digital data, such as text, images, or other types of information, to be translated into DNA sequences. Cool!
The appeal of DNA as a storage medium lies in its density and stability, as well as its ability to store vast amounts of information in a very compact space. It also boasts remarkable durability, with the ability to preserve information for thousands of years under suitable conditions. I mean, leave it to Mother Nature to put our silly little hard drives to shame.
Back in 2015, we shared that the storage density of DNA was about 2.2 petabytes per gram. In 2017, a study out of Columbia University and the New York Genome Center put it at an incredible 215 petabytes per gram. For comparison’s sake, a WDC 22TB drive (WDC WUH722222ALE6L4) that we currently use in our data centers is 1.5 pounds or 680 grams, which nets out at 0.032TB/gram or 0.000032PB/gram.
Another major advantage is its sustainability. Estimated global data center electricity consumption in 2022 was 240–340 TWh1, or around 1–1.3% of global final electricity demand. Current data storage technology uses rare earth metals which are environmentally damaging to mine. Drives take up space, and they also create e-waste at the end of their lifecycle. It’s a challenge anyone who works in the data storage industry thinks about a lot.
DNA storage, on the other hand, requires less energy. A 2023 study found that data writing can be achieved in the DNA movable-type storage system under normal operating temperatures ranging from about 60–113°F and can be stored at room temperature. DNA molecules are also biodegradable and can be broken down naturally.
The DNA data-writing process is chemical-based, and actually not the most environmentally friendly, but the DNA storage cards developed by Biomemory use a proprietary biosourced writing process, which they call “a significant advancement over existing chemical or enzymatic synthesis technologies.” So, there might be some trade-offs, but we’ll know more as the technology evolves.
What’s the Catch?
Density? Check. Durability? Wow, yeah. Sustainability? You got it. But DNA storage is still a long way from sitting on your desk, storing your duplicate selfies. First, and we said this back in 2015 too, DNA takes a long time to read and write—DNA synthesis writes at a few hundred bytes per second. An average iPhone photo would take several hours to write to DNA. And to read it, you have to sequence the DNA—a time-intensive process. Both of those processes require specialized scientific equipment.
It’s also still too expensive. In 2015, we found a study that put 83 kilobytes of DNA storage at £1000 (about $1,500 U.S. dollars). In 2021, MIT estimated it would cost about $1 trillion to store one petabyte of data on DNA. For comparison, it costs $6,000 per month to store one petabyte in Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage ($6/TB/month). You could store that petabyte for a little over 13 million years before you’d hit $1 trillion.
Today, Biomemory’s DNA storage cards ring in at a cool €1000 (about $1,080 U.S. dollars). And they can hold a whopping one kilobyte of data or the equivalent of a short email. So, yeah …it’s ahh, gotten even more expensive for the commercial product.
The discrepancy between the MIT theoretical estimate and the cost of the Biomemory cards really speaks to the expense of bringing a technology like this to market. The theoretical cost per byte is a lot different than the operational cost, and the Biomemory cards are really meant to serve as proof of concept. All that said, as the technology improves, one can only hope that it becomes more cost-effective in the future. Folks are experimenting with different encoding schemes to make writing and reading more efficient, as one example of an advance that could start to tip the balance.
Finally, there’s just something a bit spooky about using synthetic DNA to store data. There’s a Black Mirror episode in there somewhere. Maybe one day we can upload kung fu skills directly into our brain domes and that would be cool, but for now, it’s still somewhat unsettling.
What Is Ceramic Storage?
Ceramic storage makes an old school approach new again, if you consider that the first stone tablets were kind of the precursor to today’s hard drives. Who’s up for storing some cuneiform?
Cerabyte, the company behind the “video that surfaced online,” is working on storage technology that uses ceramic and glass substrates in devices the size of a typical HDD that can store 10 petabytes of data. They use a glass base similar to Gorilla Glass by Corning topped with a layer of ceramic 300 micrometers thick that’s essentially etched with lasers. (Glass is used in many larger hard drives today, for what it’s worth. Hoya makes them, for example.) The startup debuted a fully operational prototype system using only commercial off-the-shelf equipment—pretty impressive.
The prototype consists of a single read-write rack and several library racks. When you want to write data, it moves one of the cartridges from the library to the read-write rack where it is opened to expose and stage the ceramic substrate. Two million laser beamlets then punch nanoscale ones and zeros into the surface. Once the data is written, the read-write arm verifies it on the return motion to its original position.
Cerabyte isn’t the only player in the game. Others like MDisc use similar technology. Currently, MDisc stores data on DVD-sized disks using a “rock-like” substrate. Several DVD player manufacturers have included the technology in players.
Similar to DNA storage, ceramic storage boasts much higher density than current data storage tech—terabytes per square centimeter versus an HDD’s 0.02TB per square centimeter. Also like DNA storage, it’s more environmentally friendly. Ceramic and glass can be stored within a wide temperature range between -460°F–570°F, and it’s a natural material that will last millennia and eventually decompose. It’s also incredibly durable: Cerabyte claims it will last 5000+ years, and with tons of clay pots still laying around from ancient times, that makes sense.
One advantage it has on DNA storage though is speed. One laser pulse writes up to 2,000,000 bits, so data can be written at GBps speeds.
What’s the Catch?
Ceramic also has density, sustainability, and speed to boot, but our biggest question is: who’s going to need that speed? There are only a handful of applications, like AI, that require that speed now. AI is certainly having a big moment, and it can only get bigger. So, presumably there’s a market, but only a small one that can justify the cost.
One other biggie, at least for a cloud storage provider like us, though not necessarily for consumers or other enterprise users: it’s a write-once model. Once it’s on there, it’s on there.
Finally, much like DNA tech, it’s probably (?) still too expensive to make it feasible for most data center applications. Cerabyte hasn’t released pricing yet. According to Blocks & Files, “The cost roadmap is expected to offer cost structures below projections of current commercial storage technologies.” But it’s still a big question mark.
Our Hot Take
Both of these technologies are really cool. They definitely got our storage geek brains fired up. But until they become scalable, operationally feasible, and cost-effective, you won’t see them in production—they’re still far enough out that they’re on the fiction end of the science fiction to science fact spectrum. And there are a couple roadblocks we see before they reach the ubiquity of your trusty hard drive.
The first is making both technologies operational, not just theoretical in a lab. We’ll know more about both Biomemory’s and Cerabyte’s technologies as they roll out these initial proof of concept cards and prototype machines. And both have plans, naturally, for scaling the technologies to the data center. Whether they can or not remains to be seen. Lots of technologies have come and gone, falling victim to the challenges of production, scaling, and cost.
The second is the attendant infrastructure needs. Getting 100x speed is great, if the device is right next to you. But we’ll need similar leaps in physical networking infrastructure to transfer the data anywhere else. Until that catches up, the tech remains lab-bound.
All that said, I still remember using floppy disks that held mere megabytes of data, and now you can put 20TB on a hard disk. So, I guess the question is, how long will it be before I can plug into the Matrix?