Microsoft invents glass that stores data

And the 1978 Superman film will now last for centuries thanks to the resilient discs

Photo: Microsoft Project Silica close-up

Solutions for storing data are always needed and now - even more than ever. Tech innovations such as fast data speeds like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will let you download better quality shows and games than before, while the phone in your pocket can record 4K clips and take plenty of pictures, which usually require frequent backups.

Then you have your operating system and apps, your work data, and you may even be in charge of managing the storage of your family’s memories. Solid-state drives definitely help with all the backups and storage needs, and while they’re cheaper than ever, they’re also more expensive than traditional hard drives - and they won’t last forever.

Microsoft is thus looking to fix some of the world’s endless storage needs by using a brand new material for data: Nearly indestructible Quartz glass that can hold permanent copies of data. The aim of the so-called Project Silica, which began in 2016, is to create a solution ideal for cold storage -- data that needs to be stored but rarely accessed for long periods of time. But before you get too excited about getting your hands on a glass drive, Quartz discs, or whatever these things end up being called, you should know the technology is in its infancy — and it doesn’t work like you might expect.

Quartz copies, for example can only be written once, with the help of femtosecond lasers, which are used in LASIK procedures. These lasers carve voxels, 3D representations of pixels, and each voxel is unique. Then, machine learning algorithms can read the different patterns and decode the data. A 2mm piece of Quartz can contain more than 100 layers of voxels, Microsoft says, without telling us how much data that would amount to. But the glass drive shown in these images suggests that storing a film like Warner Bros’s 1978 Superman, amounting to 75.6 GB of data, is possible on a rather tiny piece of glass - 75x75x2mm.

That may not sound so impressive given that a dual-layer Blu-ray holds 50GB on 12 cm disc. But as Microsoft develops the technology, the company is creating discs with higher and higher capacities. Plus, the main benefit of this new medium is longevity and stability, not capacity. Research teams have put the square discs through their paces, ensuring the data is still readable even after baking them in ovens, dunking them in boiling water, heating them in microwaves and scratching them with steel wool.

This brings us to the kind of customers that will want (or need) to store their data this way. Movie studios, and any organisation or company that needs to store large amounts of data and make sure that data can’t be destroyed by the environment, or natural disasters, will want this sort of storage.

This is also the kind of read-only data that companies like Warner Bros. might want to use to safeguard their libraries of historic films (both celluloid and digital), radio shows, TV shows, animated shorts, dailies and more at the same time preserving the original quality of the film, as intended by the makers. This is particularly important when it comes to the preservation of digitally-shot movies, which are typically archived by repeatedly copying and moving files across magnetic drives every few years.

It is thus no surprise that Warner Bros. approached Microsoft upon learning of its glass-based storage technology.

"For years, they had searched for a storage technology that could last hundreds of years, withstand floods or solar flares and that doesn’t require being kept at a certain temperature or need constant refreshing," said Jennifer Langston of Microsoft.

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