Information & Communication

High-Density Data Storage

Technical Applications


High-density data storage comprises three main technologies: random access memory (RAM); high-density magnetic storage and optical storage. (Biomolecular electronics is part of the Living Systems section.) High-density random access memory is contained on semiconducting materials lined with electric transistor circuits making up an integrated circuit.


High-density magnetic storage is characterized by the ability to store information as a pattern of magnetic domains on a thin layer of ferromagnetic material on the surface of a disk or tape. To meet the demands of the computer, the recorded information must have very high density (that is, each bit must occupy a very small area), and reading and writing must be done at very high speed. The highest densities available commercially are 20 megabits per square centimeter for tape and 10 megabits per square centimeter for rigid disks. The theoretical limit to magnetic recording density is very high- -about 16 gigabits per square centimeter for media based on iron. However, advances in other technologies such as recording heads are required before engineers can approach these densities. High density magnetic storage is critical to the success of the National Information Infrastructure and the National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative. It also has a significant array of applications in national defense.


Advances in random access memory are simply the extension of current trends towards more complex integrated circuits for the purpose of supplying more functionality at reduced costs. RAM's relatively simple circuit designs serve as excellent testbed for advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology, as well as for creating and sustaining the information infrastructure. Enhanced storage capacity will contribute to job creation in the information sector, and will help improve the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector. It will be critical to improved health and education of the U.S. population. Among other things, improved delivery of health care depends on improved high-density storage as the volume of information about health care treatments continues to grow, and as the need to maintain patient information increases. Patient information will need to be stored in three dimensional images in the future, greatly increasing the need for enhanced data storage and high resolution displays. Parallel disk storage can have significant benefits to enabling warfighting capabilities. Military applications, including ballistic missile controls and multi-theater troop management, afford considerable challenges for rapid data storage and retrieval. Health applications, particularly biomedical research, often require similar high density, rapid access disk storage capabilities that could benefit from advances in this technology.


Overall, the United States has a slight technology lead in data storage technology including a lead in rigid magnetic disk drives, the largest segment of the $65 billion worldwide computer peripheral equipment market. Producers such as IBM and Fujitsu, building disk units for their own equipment, account for nearly half of total production, with the remainder, the so-called merchant market, supplied primarily by five U.S. vendors--Seagate, Conner Peripherals, Quantum, Maxtor, and Western Digital. Leadership in rigid disk drive technology and fierce price competition have enabled these five U.S. manufacturers to dominate world markets. These firms are clear technology leaders in such advanced magnetic disk storage developments as high- performance magnetoresistive head assemblies and glass substrates. Japanese companies are forming alliances with U.S. firms, exchanging their production knowhow for U.S.-made designs.