If you are one of those who are still not aware of the next generation of storage devices, you have a lot of catching up to do. Under its ‘Project Silica’, Microsoft has been developing a glass storage that would preserve users’ digital memories for a longer time, as well as help in shrinking the size of modern data centres. At the ongoing Microsoft Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida, company CEO Satya Nadella showed the glass that Microsoft has developed. The glass reportedly had an entire copy of the Warner Bros. 1978 Superman movie stored on it. Microsoft says that it is using regular quartz glass, and developed it from scratch.
‘We built this entire system that’s essentially a new cold storage system,’ Nadella said at the event. According to the company, the demand for long-term data storage is already reaching unprecedented levels. It predicts that by 2023, over 100 zettabytes of data will be stored in the cloud. Keeping that in mind, Microsoft leveraged discoveries in ultrafast laser optics to store data in quartz glass by using femtosecond lasers, and building a completely new storage system designed from scratch around this technology.
But before we move further in telling you about the technology, let’s discuss what the company has achieved after years of its research. As mentioned, Microsoft and Warner Bros. have collaborated to successfully store and retrieve the entire 1978 ‘Superman’ movie on a piece of glass that is roughly the size of a drink coaster kept at your desk (75 x 75 x 2 mm). Microsoft considers it as the first proof of concept test for Project Silica, which has Microsoft Research team at its heart.
‘Storing the whole ‘Superman’ movie in glass and being able to read it out successfully is a major milestone. I’m not saying all of the questions have been fully answered, but it looks like we’re now in a phase where we’re working on refinement and experimentation, rather asking the question ‘can we do it?’ Mark Russinovich, Azure’s Chief Technology Officer, said in a statement. Microsoft says that Warner Bros. approached them after learning of the research. The The US-based entertainment company were in search of a new technology to safeguard its vast asset library of content like ‘Casablanca,’ 1940s radio shows, animated shorts, digitally shot theatrical films, television sitcoms, dailies from film sets.
Microsoft was able to store data on the glass, thanks to the discoveries in ultrafast laser optics and artificial intelligence. A laser encodes data in glass by creating layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles. Machine learning algorithms read the data back by decoding images and patterns that are created as polarised light shines through the glass. That’s a shorter version of the whole process. You can watch the video below to have an idea of how this happens at a facility.
The question here is, 'isn’t glass fragile?' Some would think, 'Microsoft must be kidding by storing our precious data on glass devices.' Well, that’s not the case. The hard silica glass can withstand being boiled in hot water, baked in an oven, microwaved, flooded, scoured, demagnetised and other environmental threats that can easily destroy archives. Further, the technology has the potential of cutting down the cost of long-term storage. By cost of long-term storage we mean that the cost needed to repeatedly transfer data onto newer media before the information is lost.
Microsoft says that on the glass storage, you only write the data onto the glass once. Femtosecond lasers — ones that emit ultrashort optical pulses and that are commonly used in LASIK surgery — permanently change the structure of the glass, so the data can be preserved for centuries. Moreover, Quartz glass also doesn’t need energy-intensive air conditioning to keep material at a constant temperature or systems that remove moisture from the air. In this way, the environmental footprint of large-scale data storage can also be lowered to a certain extent.