The world is built on data these days, and keeping that data safe and sound is big business. Now, Microsoft is showing off a new proof of concept called Project Silica that stores 75.6 gigabytes of data on a sheet of glass about the size of a drink coaster and just 2mm thick. To make the display extra special, the company partnered with Warner Bros film to put the 1978 movie Superman on one of these disks. If you’ve ever seen the Superman movies, you can imagine what this looks like:
Project Silica has produced a 750-mm x 750-mm x 2-mm sheet of silica glass that Microsoft says could be one future for cold data storage. Right now, cold storage happens on hard drive or magnetic tape. Both of those wear out after a few years of use, and companies like Warner Bros. have to constantly migrate data to new storage to make sure its back catalog of master files doesn’t go up in smoke.
Glass data storage is an interesting proposition. You can only write to it once, but it degrades more slowly than other formats. The data is written using lasers similar to those used in LASIK, and once the data is written, it will stay there for centuries rather than years. For data that is simply stored and protected, that seems like a pretty good idea.
Project Silica keeps on ticking
And this format is durable. Microsoft researches boiled, baked, microwaved, and scoured the glass with steel wool (all the same things one can do to a potato) with no loss to the data stored inside the glass.
The climax of the first season of Mr. Robot was built around destroying cold-storage data by simply heating it up; a plausible if unlikely situation. And then there’s that time hundreds of master recordings were lost in a fire. Cold storage is carefully managed for temperature, humidity, and general air quality. These glass sheets can be smashed with a hammer, but they’ll withstand a lot of other disasters that traditional storage simply won’t, and they’ll last much longer.
Microsoft is clear that this storage isn’t meant for home use. This is for enterprise-level storage. There’s still a lot of work to be done, too. The format reads slowly right now, and Microsoft wants to improve on that. Even so, glass has benefits similar to that of SSDs when compared to rotational drives; data can be read from exactly the spot you want when you want it, rather than having to spin or spool over to that spot. Tape storage also offers significantly higher density for the size. A single tape cartridge can store terabytes, plural, and researchers are developing tape storage that could hold well over 150TB of data.
Magnetic tape storage is also very mature, while glass is in its embryonic stage. We likely won’t see it in commercial use for quite a few years yet—if ever. Even so, forever is a tantalizing proposition for the companies that are having to spend the time and money swapping their data to new formats every few years.