Can the Internet Run Out of Space?

September 01, 2020

The world is increasingly dependent on technology to function. Laptops, cell phones, and the growing IoT make our everyday lives easier. But whenever we send a text, share a tweet, or search Google, we’re creating massive amounts of data.

Data is what makes the world go round—without it, entire industries could cease to function. While global internet failure is unlikely, the longevity of our data creation speed is a cause for concern. Is the world creating more data than the internet can hold?

Can the Internet Run Out of Space?

Technically, no. The internet in the way most people understand it cannot run out of space. The internet simply refers to the network of connections between other computers. The amount of data storage on the internet is as limitless as its connections around the world. Still, all that data needs to be stored somewhere. And that’s where our current data storage technology is facing an impending problem. The world’s data storage systems have evolved drastically over the past decades. Today, personal hard drives, large data storage centers, and the cloud are the data storage options of choice for the majority of internet users. But with over 1,700 terabytes of data created every minute, those storage options will soon run out of space. That’s why technology companies are rushing to be the storage option the world will soon desperately need. Here are five emerging technologies hoping to fix our data storage crisis.

Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording

Heat-Assisted Magnetic Recording (HAMR) may be the next step in hard-drive focused data storage. HAMR uses lasers to spot-heat small sections of the computer’s internal disk platters to 400 degrees Celsius (or 750 degrees Fahrenheit) before writing data. Heating the disk changes the magnetic coercivity of that section long enough to write that data in a much smaller section than traditional methods. Once the disk cools down, the data becomes secure until heated back up again.By decreasing the disk’s magnetic fields just long enough to write the data, HAMR can store much more information on a single disk than before. In order to record all of the books ever written (approximately 400 TB), you would only need to store it on 20 HAMR devices. This data storage option is close to being commercially available and can hold 20 TB of memory.

Helium Disk Drives

Helium disk drives

Other high-capacity disk drives are vying to beat the cloud’s growing reign on data storage. Helium disk drives are already commercially available. By hermetically sealing helium gas (which is about one-seventh the density of air) inside the hard drive, it drastically reduces the internal friction from the drive’s spinning disks. That decreased internal friction lowers the electrical power needed to maintain a stable temperature, allowing more disks to be safely stored in the drive. Their cooler running temperature, high-efficiency, and easy integration make helium disk drives a technology to watch.

DNA Data Storage

Every piece of data today can be distilled into strings of one ones and zeros, or the binary system. DNA storage encodes data in a similar way. Rather than using the binary system, scientists have found a way to encode data using DNA’s quaternary system made up of the body’s four base nucleotides: A, T, C, and G. Since one gram of DNA has the ability to store up to 215 petabytes of data, scientists are hopeful that this system can help fix the world’s data storage concerns. There are a few issues scientists need to work out before DNA data storage becomes universally adopted. The process of encoding and decoding data into a readable format is a painstaking process that requires scientists for every step. Since DNA storage has only been used in lab settings and using relatively small amounts of data (like an OK Go music video and Project Gutenberg’s Top 100 Books), they’re nowhere near the amount of storage the world will need. The manpower and cost of this extremely hands-on process need to be figured out before this storage system is adopted on a global scale.

5D Nanotechnology Glass

Glass etching has been around as an art form for hundreds of years. But scientists have figured out how to store data in glass etchings using a method called five-dimensional data storage. Rather than store data on flat surfaces like CDs, lasers can create tiny physical 5D structures inside the glass called “nanogratings”. Computers read this data by looking at the nanograting’s orientation, its location on the x, y, and z axes, and the strength of the nanograting’s light refraction. One standard-sized glass disk can store up to 360 terabytes of data, won’t degrade for 13.8 billion years, and can withstand temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. While 5D glass may not work for simple hot data retrieval, it’s a solid solution for cold data and archival storage.

Quantum Data Storage

Quantum data storage

Another technology hoping to become the next step in data storage seems like it came straight from a sci-fi novel: quantum computing. Quantum computers could use the properties of quantum physics to go through data in real-time. Computers today use the binary system with “bits” of data stored as strings of ones and zeroes. Quantum computing uses quantum bits, or “qubits” which are stored in a superpositioned state where they can be simultaneously both one and zero. Being in an infinite number of states at once allows quantum computers to perform exponentially more calculations at a faster speed. The problem is that quantum physics, in essence, is about particles behaving in unstable and unpredictable ways. Scientists at this point have only been able to store qubits for less than a second before they become unstable. This form of data storage is still in its infancy and has only been tested within lab settings. It may take decades before any quantum memory becomes available to the public sector. But if it does work, it has the ability to hold massive amounts of data.

What’s Next?

Woman looking at her phone

While the world isn’t at a point yet where it needs to be worried about a “Datageddon”, or an overload of data that causes the internet to collapse, it does need to be concerned about what the next widely-adopted evolution of data storage will be. Data creation is growing exponentially. It’s clear to scientists and the general public that the current model of massive data storage centers is not sustainable. Some of the above options may be more applicable to a global market than others—but right now, the race to find the next data storage solution is anyone’s game.