The Past, Present and Future of Storage Solutions

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In the town of Lascaux in southern France, there is a system of caves with more than 1,500 etchings on the walls that experts estimate to be roughly 17,000 years old. The primitive people who inhabited this part of the world many millennia ago painted these pictures to portray deer, oxen and other big game animals that served as sustenance for them. When first discovered, many theorized that these depictions were simply the cave-dwellers’ rudimentary attempts at art, while others suggested that they were the result of some kind of ancient religious ritual.

However, there might have been a more practical reason behind this practice. Many of these paintings show the animals piled into large pits, where they would have been relatively vulnerable to attack from projectiles. Scientists believe that the hunters of these prehistoric tribes would herd these animals into pits and then strike them, and archaeological digs in France and Spain that have unearthed large concentrations of animal bones and spears in certain spots seem to corroborate this. Thus, the illustrations in the caves at Lascaux could very possibly be an example of proto-information-storage techniques: By recording this ambush style of hunting in pictures, they would have preserved a process central to the very existence of their civilization.

In the information storage field, the progression of technology has always determined not only how much new data could be produced, but also how much could be practically retained. Hence, the practice of storing information can be divided into four distinct periods, each based on its own particular means of preserving data. We’ve already covered the first—the primitive era—so we can move on to the next three.

Language and the Library of Alexandria
The reason the ancient inhabitants of Lascaux painted their information was that they didn’t have a written language. The rise of codified dialects comprised of letters or characters that represented verbal formulations (i.e. “words”) substantially increased humankind’s capacity to express more complex ideas and store greater amounts of knowledge.

As civilization progressed in places such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe and China, people came up with assorted arrangements to consolidate and organize the data they accumulated. The most advanced mode of storage during this time period was the library, and there was no better example of this in the ancient world than the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (which was actually a museum that happened to include a library). This institution was established in the third century B.C. by Ptolemy II, the Hellenic king of Egypt at the time and a former general in the army of Alexander the Great (who, incidentally, founded the city itself). More than 100 scholars lived and worked at this library, which is believed to have housed up to a half million documents.

Unfortunately for the Alexandrians—and the rest of the world—they didn’t have an offsite backup for all of the data that was kept there. At least 250 years’ worth of accumulated knowledge was destroyed when the library was eventually lost to fire, although no completely reliable account of the time and circumstances of this occurrence exist. How significant was this disaster? Well, some have suggested that the loss of the library’s data pertaining to mathematics, astronomy and engineering set technological progress back by a minimum of two centuries. If you can imagine the moon landing taking place in 1769 (prior to the American Revolution) instead of 1969, then you can get an appreciation how important that information was.

Guttenberg’s Press and Mass Production
For thousands of years, the method used to record information in print was to write it out by hand. This incredibly slow method was eventually—though never entirely—supplanted during the Middle Ages by block printing, which used wooden blocks to press ink to paper. This was still inefficient, though, as blocks had to be created for each page.

Contrary to popular belief, the printing press was actually invented in the 11th century in China. However, because of aesthetic and linguistic considerations, the benefits of this new technology were not immediately realized. (Unlike the alphabetic languages, written communication in Chinese involves thousands of characters and thus made movable type more problematic.) About four centuries later, a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg devised a printing press for his language. Some have speculated that Gutenberg, ahem, drew his inspiration from the Chinese press, but no one can say for sure if he knew such a thing previously existed or not.

The results were astounding at the time. The number of printed books in Europe increased exponentially, and drove a revolution in intellectual life on the continent. The great scientific, religious and philosophical advances of the following centuries were made possible because the printing press facilitated the spread of ideas from illustrious thinkers such as Luther, Newton and Descartes. Also, preservation of information was significantly enhanced by the fact that it was contained in so many different places. It’s not easy to suppress (or lose) knowledge that resides in hundreds of thousands of books spread out over wide geographic areas.

Networks and the Future of Storage
While the Gutenberg printing press was technically refined to the point where output could reach massive scales (major metropolitan newspapers that print hundreds of thousands of issues every day are the best examples of this), the basic model for information creation and preservation was in place for the next four centuries. The main mode of recording data was paper, and the means of storing it was the drawers in a desk or cabinet. There was little interactivity between producers and consumers of information, and chances were that if people wanted particular pieces of knowledge, they’d have to go digging for them.

In the 20th century, all of that began to change. Advancements in telecommunications and computing produced another sharp upturn in the amount of information created, as well as new storage technologies such as tapes and discs. This was only the beginning, though. With the rapid adoption and usage of the Internet by general populace during the mid-1990s—as well as the employment of a variety of smaller networks in organizations—the quantity of data exploded. A study conducted by students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that the output of information created between the beginning of human history and 1999—12 exabytes total—had doubled by 2003.

As a result, information storage as a profession took on a whole new level of importance. To meet the challenge of preserving and arranging unprecedented amounts of data, storage professionals generate solutions of incredible technical depth and sophistication. A primary example is the storage area network (SAN). This high-speed network, which operates within the larger network, acts as the conduit between storage devices and servers, and it allows users to access old data and backup new information almost instantly.

The future of information storage solutions might be one that today we would have trouble getting our minds around. Perhaps an infinitesimal apparatus—aided by nanotechnology—will be implanted on or near the hippocampus section of the brain to enhance our own memory. This, in turn, could even be connected to a wireless network. We could conjure up a bit of information we don’t know anything about simply by asking the device, which could then obtain that data from the network and store it—a kind of virtual omniscience. Although it seems farfetched now, it might be closer than we think.

–Brian Summerfield, brians@certmag.com

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