A little secret of cloud computing is that the energy used to store data is about a third as much again as that used for computing. In June, the Central Statistics Office reported that data centres in Ireland used as much energy last year as all the three million urban residents in the country. My arithmetic shows the energy used for storage alone (excluding cooling) by Irish data centres was about the same as that of the combined urban areas of Cork, Galway and Limerick.
In an inconvenient truth, Amazon has admitted that on average if data is older than a month, there is only a one-in-a-1,000 chance that it will ever be retrieved. But the data is stored perpetually, continuously consuming energy, just in case that embarrassing photo, old cat video or other digital detritus is ever needed again.
Furthermore, to keep the data safe there are also redundant copies, usually in several locations. Just in case.
Awkwardly, a disk drive wears out over time despite the energy spent keeping it cool. A hard drive typically lasts about five to 10 years in practice, and so – you trust – your favourite data centre dutifully copies your data to new drives every now and again. The old worn-out units are usually shredded, not recycled, to ensure confidentiality of your data. You know, just in case.
Karlin Lillington recently wrote about concerns for the long-term retention of the digital records that have been laboriously pieced back together after the 1922 Four Courts fire. I have previously written about the digitisation of the records in the 80km-long shelves of the Venetian State Archives.
In a thousand years, without vellum, how can we ensure that our own digital culture and social artefacts will be available to future historians?
Martin Kunze might well have the answer. Kunze is an Austrian silicate technologist and specialist in ceramics who in 2008 began to wonder about the fragility of our written records stored in the cloud. He started the Memory of Mankind project in 2012, a time capsule of our civilisation, etched on to ceramic tiles. Several hundred of his tiles are now stored safely deep underground in an unused Austrian salt mine. His invited contributions include newspaper articles, diary entries, love letters, technical drawings, blogs and dissertations, all carefully etched on to tiles. You can watch a short documentary about the initiative.
The Boston Consulting Group invited Kunze to present his project. In the audience was Christian Pflaum, an experienced consultant from the mobile phone industry. Kunze and Pflaum brainstormed on the challenge of archival storage of digital data, and subsequently registered a series of patents. A research project at the Technische Universität Wien followed, supported by the Austrian government. Last year they founded Cerabyte, just south of Munich. Cerabyte has come out of “stealth” and is presenting at a major data storage industry conference this week in Silicon Valley.
In a recent zoom call with me, Kunze and Pflaum laid out the implications of their remarkable innovation.
Data is laid out in microscopic QRcode-like patterns by laser etching into extremely thin ceramic layers on glass substrates. The data is stored at more than five times the density of the current generation of disk drives. As a result, the capacity is enormous. A standard data-centre storage rack shelf with a Cerabyte system should be able to hold multiple “petabytes”, compared with the couple, at most, of petabytes offered by disk-drive racks today. A single petabyte can store more than 4,000 high-definition movies, or more than 16 million hours of music in MP3 format.
Cerabyte data is physically written, unlike the fragile electronic or magnetic charges held by disk drives. In consequence, the data is stable across a very wide range of temperatures, and even in corrosive or acidic atmospheres. It is fire and water resistant, and can survive exposure to radiation or electromagnetic pulses, unlike today’s storage technologies. Cerabyte expects its data to last at least 1,000 years.
The design uses off-the-shelf components to simplify manufacturing and keep costs low. The access times for reads and writes of data are comparable to the top speeds of modern disk drives. Best of all, once written, Cerabyte data requires absolutely no further energy to preserve it.
Several global cloud companies are engaging with Cerabyte, and are reputedly extremely intrigued by the potential of the breakthrough.
Prehistoric Mesopotamian clay tablets exist from 9,000BC (about 11,000 years ago). Perhaps ceramic recordings of our digital civilisation will be accessible in at least 10,000 years time.