An end in sight?

Like rules, theoretical limits in computing seem to be made to be broken. Back in 1977, Ken Olson the president of Digital Equipment Corp. made the infamous comment that, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Microsoft brain Bill Gates himself set the bar low for home computing in 1981 when he said of memory that "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

In recent years computer researchers have been more cautious in their predictions for the future, although there was the odd prediction that processor speeds would one day top out because of limited transistor widths, natural electrical resistance in copper-based CPUs, finite computer BUS speeds and elementary quantum mechanics.

Chip manufacturers kept beating the odds, however, creating technologies to allow for the manufacture of even narrower transistors. As a result processing speeds continue to increase to the point that the latest available models have been clocked at 3.4 GHz – one gigahertz faster than the fastest machines a year ago.

Still, the latest research suggests that at least one measure of system performance is about to tap out.

According to Wired magazine (, a group of scientists has discovered that there might in fact be an actual speed limit for storage and data retrieval on hard drives. The rate they came up with is still more than a thousand times faster than today’s storage devices and we’re probably decades away from hitting the wall, but still it’s a limit where none existed before.

The scientists may be wrong, but this storage prediction may be a little more accurate than previous computing predictions. The researchers at Stanford University used a particle accelerator to test and retest their theory, and left little room for error.

Basically hard disks are dotted with tiny areas that can be magnetized to represent either a 1 or a 0 in binary. To rewrite the data, changing the order of ones and zeroes, you have to send an electromagnetic pulse into the medium to reverse its polarity. The faster the pulse, the faster you can write and rewrite information.

The electromagnetic pulse is the limiting factor, it seems. According to their tests the high energy required to speed up pulses past a certain rate results in random magnetic changes to the medium rather than the ordered changes required to accurately store information.

The speed of data storage and transfer will ultimately limit the top speed of other hardware components, including processors and graphics cards because all those devices do is process the data stored on your disk.

On the bright side, magnetic disk data storage could one day be replaced by something even faster, like high capacity, low energy flash memory systems. Laser systems are also in development, along with other light-based hardware. It’s also possible that different memory systems, like RAM and hard disks, could be used in concert with one another to allow for faster start-ups and faster computing speeds. Only time will tell.

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