Microsoft’s new write-once storage medium is constructed from quartz glass, stores data using lasers, and uses machine learning algorithms for decoding.
Photo by Jonathan Banks for Microsoft
If you want to store data securely for a very long time, what storage medium do you choose? According to Microsoft, you should choose its still-in-development quartz glass drive.
It’s called Project Silica and it relies on femtosecond lasers to store data in a sheet of glass. As a proof of concept test for Project Silica, Microsoft collaborated with Warner Bros. to store the 1978 movie Superman on a piece of this glass, which measures 75-by-75mm and is just 2mm thick. It’s the size of a drink coaster.
The movie is stored by encoding the data with an infrared laser and creating “layers of three-dimensional nanoscale gratings and deformations at various depths and angles.” Reading the data from the glass requires machine learning algorithms that can decode “images and patterns that are created as polarized light shines through the glass.” So unlike storage mediums designed to work with desktop computers and mobile devices, Project Silica works with the resources offered by the cloud.
It sounds complicated, but the upside is how robust this write-once storage medium is. Microsoft claims the glass can be boiled in water, baked at 500 degrees in an oven, blasted in a microwave, and demagnetized, but the data it contains will survive. The lifetime is also incredibly long and measured in thousands of years.
Warner Bros. may sound like an unusual first partner, as does Superman for a first storage experiment, but it makes sense with a bit of history. In the 1940s, Superman radio serials were recorded and Warner Bros. archivists recently discovered they had been stored on record-sized pieces of glass, with the bonus being they still play today! So it’s rather fitting that the Superman movie be stored on a piece of glass to ensure it remains playable into the future, just like the radio serials.
Clearly Microsoft is hoping Project Silica becomes the archival medium of the future and we could one day see all movie and TV studios transferring their content to glass. However, archiving is only one piece of the storage puzzle and we need other solutions to help cope with the staggering amount of data we create every year. Here too, Microsoft is working on a solution, only instead of glass it relies on DNA.