Predictions: Where will storage be in 40 years?

40 years ago, almost to the day, I interviewed with Digital Equipment Corp. and two weeks later reported for work. After the tremendous advances since then, I have to wonder, where will we be in 40 years?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor
Red Rock View

Editor's note: Retiring after 40 years in the computer industry and 14 years with ZDNet will leave Robin Harris with more time for other adventures, as seen above. Robin: Your wit, intelligence and expertise will be sorely missed. [Photo credit: Robin Harris]

Robin Harris

In 1981, a 5MHz 32 bit supermini CPU cost $150,000, hard drives cost $50/MB, and IBM's SNA network was dominant in many enterprises. FORTRAN and COBOL ruled technical and business computing. A PC meant either Radio Shack, Commodore, or Apple, and none were common in business.

The next five years things changed all that. The IBM PC legitimized microcomputers. Seagate shipped a 5MB 5.25-inch hard drive. Intel, DEC, and Xerox introduced Ethernet. Visicalc drove PC adoption across enterprises. And boffins were using a fledgling ARPAnet, often running a rickety OS called UNIX. 

I never would have predicted that 40 years later I'd be wearing more power on my wrist than you could buy then, with a better display and a wider range of applications. Or that my $1,000 notebook would have more storage than all but the largest enterprises.

But that won't stop me from trying. Here's what I look forward to, 40 years from now. 


Storage will continue to evolve at an accelerating pace. Non-volatile memory -- the 21st century's answer to magnetic core memory -- is especially exciting. Several new storage technologies will reach market, each faster, more resilient, but not necessarily cheaper, than what we have today. 

Bio-based and crystal-based storage will be battling it out. Bio will be denser, but crystalline storage will be faster and longer-lived, and each will find a niche.

Persistence, the raison d'être of storage, will emerge as a key problem. Our entire digital civilization is based on magnetic media and quantum wells with a 5-10 year lifespan. A few EMPs in the right places -- or one massive solar flare -- and the last several decades of knowledge and records will be lost forever. We must do better but we won't until a major disaster strikes first. 

The virtualization of human interaction, turbocharged by more pandemics, will continue apace. That means the rapid growth of hyper-scale cloud computing won't be able to keep pace with the data generated by mobile devices at the edge, especially as prices continue to drop, third-world incomes rise, and another 4 billion people come online. 

Gathering, analyzing, reducing and monetizing edge data will be a major industry, enabling us to manage, I hope, the logistics of a much more turbulent world of 10 billion people.

Social networks will be recognized and regulated as public utilities. Letting a few hundred malicious actors derail and pollute public discourse is unacceptable, no matter how profitable a few billionaires and their sycophants find it. 

The Covid-driven rush to rural areas won't last. Urbanization has been a secular trend for 500 years because cities are wealth-creation machines. Back in the 1840s living in a city cut a decade off your lifespan, and people still flocked to them. We'll get past Covid.

Turning the page

I'm looking 40 years ahead because, as of September 1, 2021, I'm retiring from the computer industry and more than 14 years at ZDNet. Joining the industry began a major new chapter in my life. 

Now it's time for another chapter. Literally. 

I intend to finish the historical novel I've been working on for the last six years. I've put a draft of the first chapter online here. Warning: if you need American history sugar coated, this isn't for you.

As excited as I am about this next chapter in my life and work, I've also engaged in some anticipatory nostalgia. I'll miss people I've met at CES, NAB, the Usenix FAST conference, and the excellent Non-volatile Memory Workshop at UC San Diego, and now, the people I will never meet -- like most of the rest of the excellent ZDNet crew.

As I turn the page on this chapter of my life, I'm looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as best I can. May it ever be so for you as well.

Comments welcome. What turning points are you looking forward to?

Editorial standards