What's next for data storage?
We are currently on the cusp of a significant evolution for data storage in professional and 'prosumer' audio environments. As technology advances, increased performance is on the horizon in the form of terabyte hard drives and faster data-transfer protocols. Drive capacities are skyrocketing, while costs per gigabyte (and now terabyte) are dropping like a stone, creating a situation where manufacturers will soon be able to pack an awful lot of disk-based storage into a very small space. (The increase in capacity isn't the result of added platters — although this is often the case. Instead, drive makers have embraced new technologies, which essentially enable them to burn more data onto standard-sized platters.)
When they become commercially available, terabyte drives will certainly yield very low-cost, high-density solutions, and will inevitably find their way into Firewire and USB devices, and, of course, RAID arrays. We can expect to see them virtually everywhere.
But the rules of supply and demand are in play here. In their early stages, these large drives will be very expensive. Within a few months, prices will start falling, as they normally do with any new product. Drive manufacturers are saying that they want the first batches to go to the PC manufacturers, so they can get de-bugged and tested in the marketplace. Once terabyte drives have been out for a quarter, people on the OEM RAID side will start to see them. And by that time, the market will have had a chance to stabilise, allowing production to rise and costs to fall.
At this stage, the industry will begin taking advantage of the capacities of new drives. Developers will be able to pack 36 terabytes into a 5U enclosure, which is quite a bit of storage in a relatively compact space.
Multi-terabyte solutions built on iSCSI — a data-transfer protocol that uses standard TCP/IP and Ethernet networking to transfer data to hard drives — are expected to be the next big thing in the data storage world. These products, coupled with the introduction and fall in price of 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet infrastructures, are being designed for multiple users and high-bandwidth applications, and have already been tested with sustained data rates of 250MB per second and above. In theory, rates of up to 800MB per second are possible in fully optimised systems.
But for high-end active environments, such as commercial recording studios, such large amounts of storage are not a terribly significant issue, as audio data streams are relatively small in size (when compared, for example, to high-definition video). The most important consideration is a solution that fits into such a facility's workflow, with no danger of data being compromised.
An awful lot of data transfer is still being made via the so-called 'sneakernet': the process of physical data transfer through the carrying of removable media, such as CDs, flash memory and external drives, on foot to their destination, rather than, for example, sending files by FTP or email. This practice is aided by some great 'removable' products from a number of manufacturers, including Glyph, who have been very successful in the professional market. DAW-based production has been able to flourish in myriad environments thanks to these, and it's not uncommon for high-end commercial facilities and laptop-based rigs to share data using removable drives.
But there are drawbacks associated with such devices, due to their portable nature. Problems include inadequate cooling, relatively low drive life, lack of redundancy, and the risk of being dropped; all reasons why I wouldn't want to invest my livelihood in portable drives. From a data-integrity standpoint, whether you're backing up spreadsheets or recording bands in a recording studio, solutions that are permanently mounted make much more sense, and are certainly less prone to the drawbacks previously mentioned.
My feeling is that iSCSI, coupled with 10-gigabit Ethernet connections and terabyte drives, will prove to be a viable solution for high-throughput, data-intensive applications, especially when it comes bundled in an appliance that's very quick and easy to set up. Let's hope the industry shares my view and latches on.