Networking: The end of traffic jams
The phrase "the network is the computer," first coined by Sun Microsystems researcher John Gage in 1984, has never been more apt than it is today. From the most powerful server to the smallest mobile device, the one requirement for a modern computer system is that it provides instant, fast, reliable network access. But as demand for rich multimedia content increases, meeting that requirement remains a challenge. Fortunately, new networking technologies are emerging to lend fresh meaning to the phrase "high-speed broadband" -- and they could arrive sooner than you expect.
The 802.11n standard, which offers wireless networking at speeds up to 600Mbps, has been a long time in the making. Customers are only now beginning to upgrade from the slower 802.11b and 802.11g standards. But that doesn't mean work on Wi-Fi has stood still. On the contrary -- the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Gigabit Alliance have joined forces to develop Wi-Fi's next generation, which promises to be just as much a leap forward as 802.11n. The new standard will broadcast on the 60GHz radio spectrum and will be able to achieve data transfer rates up to 7Gbps -- fast enough to stream Blu-ray-quality video.
Wi-Fi speeds affect only the local area, however. The speed at which you can access the Web still depends on your connection to your ISP. So far, the fastest connections have been available only to those customers who have access to direct fiber-optic links. But ISPs should soon be able to provide low-cost access at near fiber-optic speeds to a much broader audience, thanks to technology under development at Alcatel-Lucent. Using a combination of signal-processing tricks, the technology promises speeds up to 300Mbps over ordinary copper wire, at a distance of up to 400 meters from a communications hub.
Storage: More, more, more
Today's data centers are like baby birds: always hungry. More storage capacity, greater density, lower power consumption, and faster access times -- the demands are relentless. Fortunately, storage has been one of the fastest-moving areas of computing technology in recent years, and that trend isn't slowing. Hard drive manufacturers are increasing capacity at an alarming rate, even as chipmakers are blazing new trails with high-speed solid-state devices. But the most exciting new data storage technologies are yet to come, and they will be entirely original.
At IBM's Almaden Research Center, scientists are working on a new form of solid-state storage called "racetrack memory." Using nanoscale wires to store information based on the direction of spin of individual electrons, racetrack memory stores data at greater density than traditional flash and provides access to that data at speeds comparable to those of traditional RAM. As with other solid-state storage media, data is retained even when the power is off. Unlike today's flash-based storage, however, there is no performance penalty to write to a racetrack memory device, and the memory never wears out.
Meanwhile, HP engineers are hoping to mine new value out of an old idea. The concept of a "memristor" -- the name is a portmanteau of "memory" and "transistor" -- has been around since 1971, when it was described in a paper by UC Berkeley professor Leon Chua. But it wasn't until 2008 that HP announced it had successfully produced a working memristor; now HP claims the technology has far more potential than Chua conceived. Because memristors have some properties of conventional transistors, they open the door to storage that can perform its own calculations, in addition to retaining data. What's more, memristors offer roughly double the storage density of flash devices and are much more resistant to radiation. HP hopes to commercialize the technology within the next few years.