The rapidly changing and expanding international IT industry is being turned on its head by two novel approaches from the UK. In the first, a computer expert has devised a method claimed to make the PC 100 times faster than at present. The second is a company that is leading Europe by providing a unique computer data-protection system.
By using shape memory alloys that go back to an original shape when heat is applied to them, Tony Anson believes he can soon transform PCs by providing them with a memory device that will radically increase their ability to write and read information to and from memory. He is already applying the technology successfully to permanently implanted medical devices.
Anson's company, Anson Medical, produces tiny folded tools, made from memory alloys, that can be inserted into a patient using keyhole surgery. When the tools reach body temperature they spring up into the intended shape either to prop open an artery or hold open an incision.
Based on this already proven application, Anson is actively looking at how heat could be used to alter the structure of each crystal on an alloy surface and transform it from its natural square shape to a rhombus.
"This means that in an instant you have got a fast, hugely dense material on which to store binary information in the same way as computer memory devices," said Anson, who lectures in Biomedical Engineering at Brunel University, west London.
"The pits where information is stored on a CD-ROM are currently at the micrometre level. We can now take that down the next step to the nanometre stage. Based on our calculations this could possibly make computers 100 times faster and at the same time give them at least 100 times more memory capacity for the same amount of space. These are only conservative estimates."
Anson estimates that with this technique he could make something the size of a CD-ROM that normally holds 650 Mb of memory and upgrade it to hold as much as 1000 Gb. This would mean that on a PC such a device would achieve a data transfer rate of about 27 Gb/s instead of the few MB/s offered today.
To apply the heat Anson will be using an electron emitter similar, yet more refined, to that employed in a television set. This would be used to apply heat locally to the individual crystal on the alloy surface and effectively change its position to be either on or off, as with a digital code. "We are not just looking at a computer," he said. "If we can prove the technology we would use it in televisions to install a device to store, for example, the top 500 movies, giving the user a complete entertainment console. In fact, wherever there is a demand for high density memory we are hoping that shape memory alloys could help."
Anson has just been given funding of £43 000 sterling from a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) award scheme and this will be used to test the technology for use in the real world.
The other new project creating a great deal of interest provides much needed help to businesses that are struggling to keep up with the speed at which IT is moving.
In response to this universal problem a UK company called NetStore has created a PC data-protection system expected to have an enormous impact internationally. Called PCRefresh, it has already been given considerable recognition. With this service, a laptop user anywhere in the world can be supplied with a new machine with the original data already installed. DTI studies in the UK have shown that only 7% of PC users regularly back-up critical data and that 70% of companies that lose data go out of business within 18 months.
NetStore is addressing this blind spot in data protection. For £15 sterling a month per user, the work of a laptop-using staff member is backed up automatically every day. Data is encrypted and sent via the Internet to NetStore's databanks, protected by physical and encoded security.
Other services available include upgrading laptops and running anti-virus software remotely. The service will also help accident-prone PC users, including those who drop or damage their laptops; people who are trigger-happy with the delete button and those who forget to install new software sent to them by central office.
NetStore has also introduced pioneering ways of buying IT application services where in the future, companies will turn to applications service providers (ASPs) to meet many of their IT needs. All the intelligence of the applications will be managed externally and a company will not have to support the cost of continually changing technology and specialist staff.
Most experts think this market will be big; perhaps half the size of the software industry as a whole within a decade.