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Internal Memory vs. External Memory

December 7, 2009

As we were setting up a new external SAN (storage area network) on the Silverchair production web farm recently, the network engineer said something that caught my attention: “The web servers will be able to use the external SAN drives faster than their own internal memory.” At first that defied my expectations of “internal vs. external,” but when I thought about more, it made perfect sense.

The web servers are designed to execute application logic, store session tracking data, handle user interaction input, and synthesize, parse, and display data from a variety of sources—they are logic processing engines that handle data storage only when necessary. On the other hand, the SAN has one purpose—to store a large amount of data and enable a super-efficient data delivery channel that rapidly responds to content requests from the web servers.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a fitting metaphor for how humans work. We are fantastic logic processing engines. We parse, synthesize, analyze, and use data input from a variety of sources to perform creative problem solving. And most importantly to this metaphor, we only store data internally when absolutely necessary. In the present day, the comprehensiveness and ubiquity of the Internet have allowed us to store an unprecedented amount of collective memory in external sources and access it from wherever we may be.

To be clear, human use of external memory did not arrive with the Internet—it has been around since the beginning of civilization. We are used to storing memory in external sources and freeing up our internal resources. Papyrus eliminated the need to memorize long epic poems. Abaci eliminated the need to memorize multiplication tables. (NB: Don’t try telling that to a 2nd grade teacher.) In modern medicine, drug handbooks store dosage and safety information that is too complex for doctors to memorize in toto. Phone numbers stored in our mobile phones eliminate the need to memorize the phone numbers of friends. We even store memories in our friends and family—I recently asked my wife, “What was the name of that hotel we liked in Chicago?” She knew, and voila, I had accessed my external memory successfully.

Alas, my comparison of human activity to Silverchair’s web farm breaks down at a key point. In many cases, accessing our external memory is not fast and efficient. Currently the external memory sources of humans are not deployed as efficiently as a SAN. Internet content sources can be hard to access, store content in highly variable forms, require a special vocabulary or technique to query, and return data in a way that does not suit our purpose.

This is the fundamental problem that Silverchair’s Semedica division addresses with semantic enrichment of data sources. We’re organizing a specific external memory category (in our case, online medical and health care information) in a way that allows it to be accessed more quickly and to return data in the right form for efficient use by clinicians and researchers. The less data that health care workers need to store internally, the more of their “processing time” can be used toward envisioning creative solutions for preventing and curing diseases. That is something that the Internet cannot do. (Yet.)

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