Tech News: From cloud to space – the future of data storage
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By Louis Fourie
Since the explosion of big data during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the storage of data has become a serious consideration due to its magnitude.
Originally data was stored on local servers or in the local data centres of organisations, but due to the growth in the amount of data and also due to security and business continuity reasons, many organisations have outgrown their own data centres and opted for data centres in the cloud.
In the past few years numerous data centres have been established all over the world to store the data of organisations.
Unfortunately, these data centres are among some of the largest consumers of energy and are thus contributing to the increase in carbon emissions, global warming and the resultant climate change. It has been calculated that together the data centres in the world use about 1.5 percent of the global electricity consumption, which is estimated to be 200 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
Although 1.5 percent may seem rather small, it equals the annual output of about 50 power plants and 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year (more than the emissions of 140 countries) according to an American National Resources Defense Council Report.
And as we continue to store increasingly larger amounts of data in the cloud, the growth in the number of data centres and consumption of energy will continue.
An innovative solution
But over the last decade some entrepreneurs and scientists came up with an innovative solution to the difficult problem of the growing energy consumption of data centres, namely, to store the massive amounts of data in space.
One of the growing number of start-ups that is considering space, and in particular satellites, as alternative to traditional energy guzzling data centres is the company Cloud Constellation Corporation (CCC) from Los Angeles.
CCC, founded in 2015, is building Spacebelt, a data storage service using small Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, planned to be completed by the end of next year.
A ring of ten LEO satellites in a 650-kilometre equatorial orbit will form a high-speed global storage network of space-based data centres continuously bouncing data off one another with their own dedicated telecommunications backbone for high-value and highly sensitive data. The LEO satellites will be accessed from very small aperture (VSAT) ground terminals on earth via geostationary satellites orbiting 36 000 kilometres above the Earth.
The satellites will be connected with redundant and self-healing photonic (laser) rings. Only three of the LEO satellites in the Spacebelt ring will be data stores, while data will be replicated between them for redundancy.
The other seven LEO satellites will be involved in the relaying of the data. CCC aims to have their satellites and Data Security as a Service (DSaaS) operational by the middle of 2022 and will initially offer 1.6 Petabytes (1Pb = 1 million Gb) of data storage.
Another contender is the company LyteLoop, whichplans to use photonics (the physical science of the generation and transmission of light) to store data in space by sending it back and forth via satellites at the speed of light (ultra-high bandwidth lasers).
According to LyteLoop, it is already possible to store petabytes of data on a satellite and the planned Hyperscale Data Centre in space. LyteLoops Cavity application will allow data to be stored in motion in a terrestrial near-vacuum cavity or chamber allowing the storage of much larger amounts of data.
More specialised use of space storage
ConnectX envisions a high security network of small satellites that stores digital currency wallets and private keys, as well as securely handle other commodity market transactions.
The Singapore company, SpaceChain, is a community-based space platform that combines space and blockchain technologies to build the world’s first open-source blockchain-based low earth orbit micro-satellite network. In 2018 the company launched two nanosatellites with the ability to handle blockchain nodes. In the beginning of 2019, they completed the first quantum transaction using the technology in space.
Benefits of space storage
The major advantages of storing data in space are improved cybersecurity and the potential to store exponentially larger volumes of data in space than in the current data centres. Cloud Constellation Corporation claims that there LEO satellites will be more secure than any data vault on earth since it will be using its own private network and ultra-secure dedicated terminals, thus bypassing the leaky Internet and leased telecommunication lines.
Connect X is considering satellite storage to drastically improve the cybersecurity of transactions in the international commodities market. The satellite would hold the secure key and thus, for instance, would mitigate the risk by avoiding the numerous middlemen when buying commodities such as oil.
A further benefit is that satellite storage and transmission networks sidestep the current strict jurisdictional laws and restrictions regarding the storage of data in foreign countries and the movement of data between countries.
However, the most valuable benefit of storing data in space is the prevention of further increases in global warming. This will be mainly due to the low energy requirements of space storage.
In the light of the growing energy consumption of the snowballing number of data centres on earth, the space storage solution is much more ecologically friendly, since the equipment does not have to be cooled using large amounts of electricity.
Space is already cold enough at about -270.45 Celsius (or 2.7 Kelvin). And since the energy used is solar energy generated by solar panels with a much higher efficiency ratio than on earth, there will be zero carbon emissions and no contribution to global warming.
Viability of storing data in space
Unfortunately, I do not think that space or satellite storage will replace the numerous traditional data centres in the immediate future. Cloud Constellation Corporation is planning to store only 1.6 Petabytes of data on its envisioned ten satellites. In comparison, Facebook’s Hive data centre alone stores more than 300 Petabytes.
Furthermore, beaming data with powerful lasers to the satellites could also use a significant amount of energy, counteracting the energy savings from storing data in space. The transmission speed is also an uncertainty since most of the companies still have to proof their claims of ultra-high-speed networks.
Lastly, the precise storage hardware that will be used is not known, but it will be fixed for the operational life of the satellites and could be totally outdated by the end-of-life of the satellite. All of the start-up companies investing in satellite storage technology believe that the storage of data in space will eventually be cheaper.
Simultaneously, the major players in the data storage industry such as Amazon, Google and Apple are also working hard to reduce their impact on the climate by investing in renewable energy to power their data centres.
Apple recently announced that some of their data centres are now completely green. If the green initiative is replicated all over the world, the viability and future of storing data in space is more uncertain since it costs about R100 000 to send a kg of technology into space. The costs storing data in green data centres will be much lower than the cost of storing it in space.
But totally green data centres are still a novelty and have not really taken off.
Meanwhile, the explosion in data and the resultant need for storage are driving the development of new traditional data centres. Due to the massive demand, the large data storing companies, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, are investing hundreds of billions of rand in new data centres every year.
The slow uptake of green technology is perhaps the reason why Amazon Web Services some time ago decided to establish a ground station allowing them to rent satellites for the storage of data.
Similarly, IBM announced on 14 April 2020 that they plan to store their Artificial Intelligence System, called Watson, on Cloud Constellation Corporation’s satellites.
The future of data storage is not entirely clear, but even if we move a small percentage of all data on earth to space, it could have a significant impact on the environment and the slowing of global warming. It may certainly be an option for highly sensitive, high value and mission critical data that need a very high level of security.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist
* Sources: www.spacebelt.com; www.lyteloop.com; https://connectx.com; https://spacechain.com