URI engineering professor designing the 21st century digital locker

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KINGSTON, R.I. – August 27, 2014 — By the time you finish reading this sentence, people will upload more than 100 hours of video to YouTube, Facebook users will share 684,000 pieces of information, 350,000 or so tweets will enter the Twittersphere and some 104,000 photos will be swapped via Snapchat. Storing all that information is no easy task.

Internet behemoths spend billions of dollars annually on sprawling data centers packed with thousands of servers. To make those servers more efficient and cheaper to operate, a team of University of Rhode Island engineering professors is rethinking the humble computer hard drive.

In July, electrical engineering professors Qing Yang and Godi Fischer won a grant from the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council to continue their work on a new data storage device that holds big promise for cloud computing storage.

Traditional computer hard drives contain a spinning disk and a head that reads and writes data using magnetism. The decades-old technology is proven, but spinning the disk and controlling the head requires significant energy and is slow, especially in an era when users expect lightning-fast speeds. Flash memory – often found in cell phones and thumb drives – draws less power but has a limited lifetime.

The URI team, which is collaborating with faculty at Brown University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is turning instead to magnetic ram. The system eliminates the need for a head and spinning by using voltage to manipulate the data on a chip. That speeds the time it takes to access data by six orders of magnitude and lowers energy consumption, one of the biggest expenses in data centers.

“Right now traditional hard drives are too slow,” Yang said. “There is a need for a new system and new storage technology that have potential for commercialization.”

The new grant will allow the team to construct a prototype that can process a few bytes. If it proves successful, researchers will scale up the system to hold hundreds of terabytes. To get there, physicists at Brown and IUPUI will develop new data-storage material. Fisher will design a circuit for control and Yang will design the actual memory system. The researchers expect the project to take about a year.

Yang’s previous projects have become commercial blockbusters. The professor has founded four companies in the last 15 years and sold the latest one, which focused on accessing storage faster, to Western Digital. The company has rolled out the technology to commercial data centers worldwide.