The incredible shrinking computer

Bill O'Brien: From room-sized mainframes to handheld PDAs, computers are getting, smaller, smaller, and smaller. Storage, both hard disk and memory, are doing the same.

Current real-world storage densities have been on the rise. Fremont, California-based Read-Rite announced in May that it had achieved 130 billion bit per square inch of hard-disk space using horizontal or longitudinal disk technology. In the same way that the demand for faster desktop PCs has fuelled demand for faster servers, it's initially aimed at consumers. The company claims that its technology will allow 134 full-length motion pictures to fit on a two-disk personal video recorder.

Back to more practical IT matters, Sony announced that it has nearly doubled tape density to 11.5 gigabits per square inch, and Hitachi recently proclaimed that its perpendicular magnetic recording technology has bumped up square-inch hard disk capacity to 107 gigabits -- about a 7 percent improvement -- but don't look for samples for another year and a half or so.

Beyond increasing storage density on existing media, the next phase of downsizing might well see your support staff taking a fantastic voyage to the atomic level. Atoms aren't the smallest known particles in the universe but, compared to today's 0.13-micron fabrication technology, they're downright miniscule. In fact, a little more than forty years ago, it was postulated that all of the printed matter accumulated since the advent of the Gutenberg Bible could be stored in a space that was 1/200th of an inch wide. That theory arose by using a 5x5x5 matrix of atoms to store one bit. We've been playing with atoms for a while since then and things have gotten smaller still. A group of physics researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have stored a single bit of data in one silicon atom using a 5x4 matrix that has the potential to produce storage densities one million times higher than today's standard.

Adventures in molecular electronics aren't limited to academia. A few weeks ago, Hewlett-Packard announced that its team of crack researchers had developed an addressable 64-bit memory module the size of one square micron. How small is that? According to HP, 1,000 of them could sit on the end of a strand of hair. Not long before that, IBM announced the current results of its Millipede Project -- nano-sized punches that can produce indentations into a thin film of plastic. To realise what that means, think back a few decades (or, if you're in the phone industry, a few years) to punch cards. Says IBM in its press release, this technique can be used to store as many as three million bits of data in a space no larger than that occupied by a single punch card hole. That's about 25 million printed pages in an area the size of a postage stamp.

You should be aware that none of this is whimsy. Products based on these technologies are expected to appear over the course of the next three years and, as they find their way into IT after that, things will change to an incredible degree. Aside from the obvious downsizing and the power savings, interface design will need to be revamped at the very least. Where do you put an RJ-45 jack on an atom? Certainly don't count on things being limited to storage-type devices either. Molecular computing is on the way as well. It could allow trillions -- not billions or millions -- of components on chip. And it's cheap and it's relatively easy compared to trying to do the same trick with silicon. If you were plucked from 2002 and dropped unceremoniously in the year 2010, it's quite likely that you wouldn't recognise the face of computing.

Of course, there's something more to think about. The fact that technology marches on should not be news to anyone. Where it marches, though, deserves some of your attention, and this atomic-level approach to computing is no exception. Embrace it as the next best thing but also be bothered by it. If you consider the current trend in hybrid automobiles -- hydrogen fuel cells -- you might start to wonder if no one remembers the two most famous examples of the use of hydrogen and fuel cells: The Hindenberg and the Ford Pinto. It wasn't the hydrogen or the gas tank that caused the problem. It was the dreams of designers and the meanderings of manufacturers. Splitting, or combining, the atom to write or transfer a bit of data possibly falls into this same category. Neither the atom nor the bit is problematic on its own, but do you really want to be around to witness a head-on crash?

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