The Next Step for Computing: The Storage Fabric


Image copyright J.D.S.

Do you care about losing your wallet? Or is it what’s inside your wallet that’s more important?

When you phrase the question that way, the answer becomes pretty obvious. You worry about your driver’s license and credit cards and, in particular, the information contained on those pieces of plastic. Wallets and credit cards are really just vehicles for valuable data.

At the same time, those vehicles come in handy when you’re in the checkout line at Target.

This two-part relationship is an essential element in the evolution of what you could call the storage fabric. The storage fabric consists of the ability to access data nearly anywhere at any time, as well as a superstructure of hardware, software and services to deliver and manage it. It’s much like your relationship with electricity — you probably didn’t buy a diesel generator to get electricity into your home: You plugged into the grid.

In the ideal storage fabric, consumers and businesses will store oft-needed information on their smart phones and notebooks for rapid access and better performance. Services like Amazon Cloud Services, Dropbox, or our own eVault, meanwhile, will archive your personal history, filter out redundancies and unnecessary information and gather new material that you might find interesting.

Applying for mortgages, sharing medical information and confirming educational and employment history will be far easier because your history — and the history of those you’re dealing with — will be at your fingertips through secure connections and permissions. Information brokerage services like those being created by will allow you to selectively give your information to marketers.

Your personal devices and the cloud, along with being plugged into the fabric, would also continually study your habits and act in the background to keep you up to date. If your phone falls into a storm drain, you can just switch to a new one: It will have everything you need. If the cloud stalls or there is a security breach, you’re not locked out.

Apple, and companies like those listed above, has started to take initial steps with services like automatic syncing, but we’re still a long way away. Some of these services are for hardware customers only. Sharing can require several steps. In the future, companies will install local storage islands around cities for smoother, faster streaming. Software will be required to help you navigate, prioritize and edit the growing stack of information.

It is easy to forget, but superstructure — hardware — is a crucial part of the equation to make everything easy. Google renamed its document service GDrive for a reason.

A movement toward a storage fabric like this represents the next logical step in the history of information. For the first five thousand years of civilization, information was largely tied to physical media: scribes carved directives from the king in tablets and third grade teachers resorted to the copy machine for homework assignments. The advent of digital and magnetic technologies in the second half of the 20th Century marked a watershed moment, because they dramatically eliminated a substantial portion of the physical bulk and legwork required to store information. Documents and datasheets could be edited on the fly. Just as important, archiving and managing data became fundamentally easier: file clerks, once a substantial portion of the workforce, suddenly were as common as blacksmiths. Still, only finite copies of most documents existed: things could easily be lost.

The Internet took things a step further by breaking the relationship between information and its physical media. Hotmail, the one-time king of email services which Microsoft recently transformed into, probably deserves some of the credit for convincing customers about the benefits of remote access. When Hotmail was founded in 1996, email was still a thing: you downloaded software onto your computer to receive email and all of your messages were stored on your laptop or desktop. With Hotmail, users could suddenly easily access messages anywhere, not just from a particular PC. Consumers no longer owned the drives and computers where their messages lived. The information was theirs, but the superstructure wasn’t.

Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook soon followed. From a user’s perspective, you could make infinite copies and get unlimited access to anything. This split, however, introduces a new set of challenges. Users are no longer responsible for the health and maintenance of the systems that store their data: they expect companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google to do it for them. And while these companies have created state-of-the-art data centers and backup systems that function at incredibly high levels of reliability, reality sometimes intrudes. Crashes occur, and instead of one person in a cubicle complaining about a lost file, it’s a whole swarm of angry, impatient consumers. Security demands will grow as sensitive information shifts finally from paper to active files.

Remote access also potentially means a gargantuan increase in data packets. To keep networks humming, service providers will have to develop caching, recovery and de-duplication strategies to minimize the volume of traffic and the distances individual bits have to travel.

Finally, managing the massive and never ending increase in structured and unstructured data has its own inherent challenges. Which data goes where? When does the consumer want to access that data and how? Companies like Seagate and many others will look to tackle that challenge and deliver on this concept called the storage fabric. Consumers won’t have to worry about the back-end technical gymnastics and complicated algorithms that are managing their data. They only need to focus on a single view of their digital world, regardless of their device.

The hard work, however, will pay off. It will lead to what people think of when they think of the “cloud.” Not the reality of millions of machines anonymously churning away. Instead, it will just be the data, which is more valuable than any individual device.

You won’t have to think about a storage fabric. It will just be there.

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