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Moving molecules at IBM Almaden

Big Blue scientists are aiming for breakthroughs to help computers sift through the exabytes of data that have become a fact of life.

IBM's researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area have been at the forefront of data storage for decades.

IBM Almaden's scanning tunneling microscope. Corinne Schulze/CNET

An IBM team invented the first hard drive (the IBM 350, which was part of a machine called RAMAC) 52 years ago in San Jose, Calif. The relational database came out of IBM's labs in the area, too.

Now, scientists at IBM Almaden are trying to come up with breakthroughs that will help computers sift through the "exabytes" of data that have become an inevitability for many corporations and government agencies. (An exabyte is a quintillion bytes, or a billion gigabytes.)

"The problems we're looking at aren't computationally driven per se, but more information management problems," said Mark Dean, an IBM fellow and director of the Almaden Research Center. "Computation is not the hard part anymore."

IBM Almaden

In the future, some computers may not give absolute answers, but will cough up approximate ones after sifting through oceans of data, Dean said. The approximate answers, ideally, will be able to narrow down the scope of an inquiry or problem, which could then be handled by a computer that can provide precise answers. Some of the systems may also function more like the human brain.

Although IBM got out of hard drives a few years ago, some researchers at Almaden are experimenting with new types of hardware for storing data. The idea is to leap years ahead and come out with storage devices that consist of a few molecules. If the technology is far enough ahead of its time, IBM would have an opportunity to make some money selling equipment or licensing its inventions.

Check out this CNET photo gallery to get a look at some of the people and projects under way at the lab.