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Data Storage: A Singapore Success Story
by Ng Ek Heng

e live in an information age that sees data created with unprecedented speed. According to the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley (www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info), the world's total yearly production of print, film, optical, and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage - the equivalent of 250 megabytes for each man, woman and child on earth. The need to store data thus created and accumulated has prompted the development of various storage media, such as the hard disk drive (HDD), the compact disc (CD) and the digital versatile disc (DVD).

Recognising the tremendous growth potential of data storage, Singapore has designated this sector as one that requires a key electronics-industry focus and introduced broad-ranging initiatives that have sharply enhanced its competitive position. These efforts have set the stage for the island nation to achieve outstanding success as a world-class innovation centre and manufacturing base for data storage products. Since the mid-1980s, the Republic has established a leading position worldwide in this niche market and is the largest producer of HDDs, generating more than 30% of the total global output. Today, the data storage industry represents the biggest sector within Singapore's electronics industry.

Data Storage Saved the Day

The importance of data storage has been heavily underscored by the devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City last September. In addition to the tragic human toll, the September 11 incident crippled businesses, with estimated losses totalling more than US$60 billion. Had this attack occurred before the information age, the US economy would have been brought to its knees by the unprecedented loss of information.

Incredibly, financial giant Morgan Stanley, the biggest tenant in the ill-fated towers, was up and functioning the very next day. This seemingly miraculous recovery can be attributed to its practice of internal backup and copying of data instantaneously to a second location. The company capitalised on the convergence of computers and telecommunications to transmit massive amounts of information electronically for off-site storage.

Likewise, US financial markets took just one week to get back into business, a tremendous achievement considering the massive volume of data generated each trading day. Data storage not only allows organisations to backup information quickly and easily but also makes it possible to have remote access so that key personnel can operate at different locations.

From Computers to Consumer Electronics

The successful recovery of information by US-based companies presents one critical dimension of data storage and its function in the business world. No less important is the storage of a database or personal information to an individual. In a rapidly networked world, we are all increasingly using personal data to carry out transactions and other daily activities by digital means.

Any kind of digital hardware - computer, consumer electronics, or household appliance - incorporates data storage in one form or another. Many digital products today must have basic information to function. The trend is moving towards increasingly "intelligent" digital devices that need greater information input, thus fuelling demand for yet more data storage products.

The data storage sector has been going through constant change to satisfy the demands of different niche markets. High-end enterprise users, for example, want high performance, competitive pricing, and ease of use in bundling together data storage products. The requirements differ for mainstream users who are price-conscious and satisfied with moderate performance and small-sized offerings. Mobile users prefer portable low-powered, moderate-performance storage devices, and aficionados of video applications want solutions that can operate quietly and smoothly deliver sustained video streams with lots of capacity.

Storage Technology

Whether in the form of hard disk, tape, optical disc or cards, data storage media stem from three main developments - magnetic, optical and volatile/non-volatile technologies. These all capitalise on the digital age wherein information - text, image, audio, video and multimedia - gets translated into a common binary language known as a "bit" (binary digit).

A bit is the smallest unit of data, and it can have two values, 1 or 0, of use only when combined with other bits to form a byte, comprising eight bits of data. For example, the character "a" is made up of one byte of data. A thousand bytes equal a kilobyte (KB), a million bytes a megabyte (MB), and 1,000MB one gigabyte (GB). In layman's terms, 1GB is equivalent to an entire volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or one typical television-quality movie (see table).

Staying on Top of Changes

Amidst fast-paced changes and storage-industry consolidation every two years, Singapore has held steadily to its strong position as a design and manufacturing base for storage products, particularly HDDs. In spite of the dwindling number of manufacturers - casualties resulted when companies became incapable of keeping up financially and technologically - the island nation continues to be the largest HDD producer, attracting the big names in the sector. It is noteworthy that the republic retains its pre-eminent position despite the intense competition from cost-competitive neighbouring countries.

The key to Singapore's success lies in its total approach strategy that involves initial economic and tax incentives, as well as all-rounded industry support and training, including value-added services such as a data storage research facilities. From fewer than 4 million units of HDDs produced in 1986, the annual output has been ramped up steadily to the current 50-million-unit level.

Realising that manufacturing strengths must be reinforced by other intrinsic capabilities, Singapore set up the Magnetics Technology Centre in 1992. In 1996 the centre was transformed into the Data Storage Institute (DSI) and its scope of research expanded to include optical storage technology (Figure 1). The move reflected Singapore's serious commitment to advancing the storage sector while attracting more storage-related companies to the country. DSI also actively spearheads strategic initiatives to effect technology transfer to the industry through collaboration and training.

Guided by an international advisory panel with enthusiastic technologists from around the world, DSI quickly earned a reputation as a world-class institute. A report published by the Information Storage Industry Center, University of California at San Diego, ranked DSI as one of the top six research-and- development centres worldwide - and the only one outside the US and Japan. According to the institute's international advisory panel, four DSI research tracks already operate at world-class level; the advisory panelists believe that DSI has matching capabilities to plug the gaps in some of the leading US National Storage Industry Consortium programmes.

These endorsements of DSI's work have put Singapore on the international map as an innovation centre capable of taking data storage technologies to a higher level. DSI's research focus spans the various disciplines - magnetic disk drive, optical drive, non-volatile storage and network technologies.

Leading-Edge Research

Each year DSI undertakes some 30 collaborative research projects with both local and overseas storage companies. Besides projects that push technological limits to increase capacity and improve the performance of existing products, DSI pioneers research into new-generation technologies for data storage applications.

Hard Disk Drives

DSI's involvement in cutting-edge research will accelerate the exponential growth of storage density. Within an HDD, information is written, read or retrieved by magnetic heads flying over rotating disks containing data. The clearance between the head and the disk gets increasingly tight as the capacity increases and HDDs become smaller.

One yardstick by which to evaluate an HDD measures the data packed into it. Fifteen years ago it was 29 megabits (Mbits) per square inch; by the end of last year HDD manufacturers were reported to have packed 1,000 times more data into the same space. DSI is currently involved in research that will position a magnetic head less than 20 nanometres above the disk, a feat equivalent to flying a Boeing 747 smoothly less than 1cm above the ground with a fisherman standing on the aircraft, spearing 300 million fish per second.

DSI's staff also conducts research that will enhance the sensitivity of magnetic heads when reading data on the disk. Looking ahead, observers expect greater challenges, when data will be packed in at more than 100 gigabits (Gbits) per square inch. The era will come when a bit will be smaller than the critical dimension of the most advanced integrated circuit chip.

Improving on existing research underway in the area of spin-valve technology, DSI's researchers have obtained results that compare favourably with those of other organisations doing similar research. The institute is now working on the next generation of spin-valves based on its own design.

Non-Volatile Storage

Like human beings, some computer memories can retain information almost permanently whereas some lose information the moment power is switched off. The former is called non-volatile memory; the latter, volatile memory.

Many users know it takes time to boot up a PC. The machine needs time to load information from the hard disk every time it starts up because it uses random access memory (RAM), which is volatile. A solution in the offing lies in magnetic RAM (MRAM). Because of its many superior properties, such as non-volatility and short cycle time, MRAM is rapidly evolving into one of the most promising replacements for existing volatile memories. Moreover, it has potential as a cheaper alternative to other non-volatile memories, such as electrically erasable programmable read-only memory, or EEPROM.

DSI's current plans involve working on a multilayered MRAM that requires the use of only the active part of the cell without incorporating the whole transistor. The design helps to increase memory capacity and reduce manufacturing cost. In December 2000, IBM announced that it would jointly develop the MRAM technology with Infineon Technologies and hinted that a 256Mbit MRAM might be in production by 2004.

Another non-volatile memory device with promise is the chalcogenide RAM (C-RAM). Its successful development will be a personal computer user's dream. A computer utilising C-RAM could be turned off, then turned back on - immediately or 10 years later - and start right up where it left off.

Recent inexpensive developments have made it possible to use C-RAM as a practical high-performance memory device. DSI's researchers hope to understand better and capitalise on its properties for cost-effective manufacture of different digital products. C-RAM may one day pervade commercial memory products and revolutionise the entire computing industry, from smart appliances and desktop computers to consumer products not even invented yet.

Optical Drives

In the case of optical drives, the convergence of information, online entertainment and other emerging uses will require ultra-high data storage for homes and enterprises. Existing CD and DVD technologies have limited themselves to offering a maximum storage capacity of 650MB and 4.7GB, respectively. DSI's goal is to perform research that will take optical drives into the multigigabyte range with ever-higher levels of performance - research using different light sources, materials research, innovative coding schemes and systems design.

Next-Generation Data Storage

Technological breakthroughs constantly happen on the storage front, thus ensuring that existing products keep pace with the needs of users in terms of capacity and performance. These exciting new areas of research will lead to the development of next-generation data storage products.

Home-Networked Storage

Today, the phrase "era of home networking" constitutes more than just hype. The technologies exist for devices to connect, to communicate, and to exchange data in a home-networked environment. The world is quickly progressing towards a connected environment where many different devices will interconnect, with or without wires. However, a major component of this connected world still goes missing - information storage. Researchers can present a strong case for a single consolidated information storage device for the intelligently networked home, and one DSI project delves into the development of an appropriate storage solution for the home network.

Holographic Storage

Scientists currently focus attention on an exciting new and potentially revolutionary area - holographic memory. Holographic memory basically serves as an optical imaging technique that stores digital information three-dimensionally. Theoretically, the possibility exists of using holographic techniques, by means of a laser, to store a terabyte (TB) of data inside a crystal no larger than a sugar cube. 1TB (1,000GB) can be better understood by thinking of it as the equivalent of playing 62 days of continuous music or the storage of 1,000 copies of the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Although the basic concepts first underwent development in the 1960s, the lack of satisfactory recording media and key components throws up barriers to the development of practical holographic recording systems. DSI is looking at using new crystal material and laser research to find possible solutions to the problem.

Singapore continues to push the envelope to stay abreast of the developments in the data storage arena. With the combined efforts of the government, research institutes and industry, the Republic is poised to be a significant global player in this fast-changing and challenging field.

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