Microsoft says DNA could be a better way to store data long-term than the magnetic tape companies rely on today.
It looks like a test tube with dried salt at the bottom, but Microsoft says it could be the future of data storage. The company reported today that it had written roughly 200 megabytes of data, including War and Peace and 99 other literary classics, into DNA.
Researchers have demonstrated that digital data can be stored in DNA before, but Microsoft says none have written so much of it into DNA at once.
Karin Strauss, Microsoft’s lead researcher on the project, says that DNA is a good storage medium because data can be written into molecules more densely than the basic elements of conventional storage technologies can pack it in. Right now the technique is expensive and finicky, but the company hopes to piggyback on the plunging costs of tools for creating and reading out DNA driven by the biotech industry. DNA is seen as a potential replacement for magnetic tape, which is the standard mechanism for long-term data stores today.
“The company is interested in learning whether we can create an end-to-end system that can store information, that’s automated, and can be used for enterprise storage, based on DNA,” says Strauss, Microsoft's lead researcher on the project, which also involves researchers from the University of Washington.
Strauss says the project is motivated by the fact that electronic storage devices are not improving as quickly as the amount of data we use grows. “If you look at current projections, we can’t store all the information we want with devices at the cost that they are,” she says.
IDC predicts that the worldwide total of stored digital data will hit 16 trillion gigabytes next year, most of it housed in huge data centers. Strauss estimates that a shoebox worth of DNA could hold the equivalent of roughly 100 giant data centers.
DNA can also be remarkably durable, particularly when kept cool and dry.