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Revolution In Hard Drives: Frickin’ Laser Beams

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Some new technologies suggest that a terabyte per second data transmission speed may now be within reach. And yes, these technologies include lasers.

Try counting to 10 in one second. OK. Now try counting to a trillion.

It’s the nature of extremely large numbers like 1 trillion that makes it nearly impossible to get an intuitive understanding of the high speeds of new technologies. Humans aren’t hard-wired to comprehend these numbers, but increasingly, we’re using technologies that call for ever larger numerical units to describe capabilities and capacities.

One prime example is the kilobyte (KB), a number used widely in the last couple of decades to describe large amounts of data. One kilobyte is equal to 1,000 bytes, or eight bits, of data. Gradually, as storage media and processors for computers have improved, the kilobyte gave way to the megabyte, which was then succeeded by the gigabyte. Now, the terabyte is coming on the scene. One terabyte is equal to 1 trillion bytes. That’s a lot of data, and you might expect it would take a while to send it from one place to another.

However, some new technologies suggest that a terabyte per second data transmission speed may now be within reach. And yes, these technologies include lasers.

Solid State Drives and Storage/Transmission Speeds

Solid-state drives (SSD) have been around for a few years, and they were the first medium in which engineers cracked the terabyte per second barrier. Solid-state electronics use integrated circuits to store information, rather than writing data onto a magnetic drive with a magnetic head, like the old "spinning drives" of the 20th century. Work with these integrated circuits, as well as chemical elements called dopants, led to tiny gadgets like flash drives and media cards. A few years ago, solid state drives were enabling multi-terabyte storage capacities and a benchmark data transmission rate of 1 TBps.

Magnetic Laser Technology

Now, a similar kind of ultra-high-speed data transmission capability is coming to the old magnetic drive model. Early in 2012, the University of York announced that international teams had engineered a breakthrough in recording data onto a magnetic medium. Using lasers, the team was able to change bits of data represented on a magnetic medium at previously impossible speeds. Old research had theorized that heat could not effect a "deterministic reversal of magnetization," but this new development shows that harnessing the power of laser-generated pulses can effectively write data.


As this report reverberated around the tech world, experts are touting its potential to make future high tech designs much quicker and more powerful, while enabling more energy efficient appliances and devices. However, experts are quick to issue some caveats as well.

"The main speed bottleneck on magnetic disk drives is caused by the mechanical latencies which are not affected by the laser heating methods," says Michail Bletsas, director of computing at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Bletsas adds that since the laser heating technology only affects writing to a drive, solid-state technologies will continue to outperform in terms of access speeds, which means that laser writing isn’t likely to upend the industry any time soon.

Still, scientists are continuing to look closely at how to achieve the highest data transmission rates. The Terabyte Bandwidth Initiative, a project initiated by Rambus, aims to bring the same terabyte per second speed to processing data. Visitors to the Rambus website can see a video of Rambus senior engineering manager Arun Vaidyanath demonstrating how these efforts work.

Can New Technologies Impact Consumer Services?

It’s all part of the constant challenge to deliver higher speeds to a consumer base hungry for more downloads, better streaming video and other high volume transmissions to computers and handheld devices. These kinds of new engineering developments can be particularly interesting for the many American customers who believe that the dominant broadband providers are keeping data speeds artificially low, as consumers in other countries enjoy access to dramatically faster services, on average. Reports from tech journals and other sources show discrepancies in bandwidth caps and other aspects of cable and wireless services. That suggests there’s a lot more potential for speeding up what’s delivered to your door.

Keep watching for more new improvements and how they can shape the consumer products and services that tech companies and providers offer in your area.


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Justin Stoltzfus
Justin Stoltzfus

Justin Stoltzfus is an independent blogger and business consultant assisting a range of businesses in developing media solutions for new campaigns and ongoing operations. He is a graduate of James Madison University.Stoltzfus spent several years as a staffer at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Penn., before the merger of the city’s two daily newspapers in 2007. He also reported for the twin weekly newspapers in the area, the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record.More recently, he has cultivated connections with various companies as an independent consultant, writer and trainer, collecting bylines in print and Web publications, and establishing a reputation…