Why Improved Data Storage Is Making Us Greener

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computers-by-robert-via-flickr

Over the past few decades, data has become essential to how we live our lives – from allowing us to pass information from one person to another, to entertaining us, to helping us preserve our memories. Today, most of this data storage happens behind the scenes; we’ve already gotten used to tiny forms of data storage, and saved information located in the “cloud”—a buzzy term for data stored remotely. But data hasn’t always been stored so invisibly.

In fact, data storage has a history of inefficiency, and advancements in that efficiency are pushing this critical feature of our society higher and higher. So how exactly is better data storage helping us live more efficient lives?

A Brief History of Data Storage: Smaller and Smaller

As recapped by Disk Copy, “data storage” as we know it can be traced back to the 1700s, when the textile industry used punch cards, and later tape to store information for use in automatic looms. Here, bits of information were stored as tiny dots, which would tell the loom what materials to include where. This technology remained the height of data storage for nearly 200 years.

The mid-20th Century saw a host of new developments, including magnetic tape, which could hold approximately 10,000 times as much information as a basic punch card.  From there, floppy disks were created, the first ones of which could hold only 80 KB of information on 8 inches of space; this seems almost laughable today, but was a major technological breakthrough. Future floppies would hold 250 MB on only 3 inches of space. CDs and DVDs replaced floppy disks, and were followed by USB Flash drives, which could hold hundreds of Gigabytes of information in an amount of space the size of your thumb.

Solving the Efficiency Problem

We’ve come a long way in the advancement of data storage technology, but some of the central problems of efficiency still exist:

– Depleting resources. Most early forms of data storage were comprised of physical materials, such as paper and plastic. Relying on these forms of storage meant putting a greater burden on our natural resources.

– Using energy. Vessels for data storage must be created, usually in factories that churn out millions of these items. It takes significant energy to produce these end products from raw materials.

– Creating waste. Older forms of data storage created lots of waste. Imagine that just 25 years ago, floppy disks were the prime choice in storage; millions of them were in active circulation. Now, you can’t even find a computer with a floppy disk drive and all those old disks now rest, useless in landfills. Even though we’re using significantly fewer materials than ever before, physical waste remains an issue.

How are we mitigating these efficiency problems?

– Storing more information on less space. First, we’re developing the capacity to store more information on less space. These advancements allow us to imprint data on smaller and smaller grooves on certain materials, going to a microscopic level to conserve space. This is what’s responsible for our forms of data storage getting smaller, while the amount of data we can store keeps going up.

– Using newer materials for storage. We’re also using newer, more innovative materials to produce our items for data storage. For example, using recycled materials alone can increase the efficiency of production, and reduce the total amount of energy required to make new materials.

– Relying on group-based storage solutions. We’re also using more advanced forms of publically accessible storage, such as cloud technology that allows millions of users to connect to the same, practically invisible platform. Of course, all the data stored in the “cloud” exists on a remotely hosted piece of physical hardware, but this mode of storage reduces our cumulative need for more physical resources.

Already, we’re leading more efficient lives thanks to the development of data storage technology, and the future of data storage will likely evolve even further. We’re using fewer resources, expending less energy, and creating less waste, yet at the same time, we’re storing more information than ever before.

Look forward to the next great developments in data storage, and appreciate how far we’ve come.