GE Holographic Storage Could Change Industry


Those 800MB CDs that are so common today eventually will become as obsolete as 1.4MB floppy disks that were so ubiquitous in the 1980s and ’90s

Engineers at GE’s Global Research Center in upstate New York on 27 April announced a breakthrough in the pursuit of holographic data storage, successfully demonstrating new holographic technology that can put 500GB of content onto a single DVD-size disk.

That’s about 20 times the capacity of a single-layer Blu-ray disk. But there is a caveat; the disks are still in early development and won’t be ready for consumer or business prime time for at least two years.

Still, it is a noteworthy milestone in the data storage industry. “This is significant,” Brian Lawrence, manager of GE’s holographic project, wrote in his blog. “Just imagine being able to put all this information on a disc.”

The process works by imprinting chemical changes in the form of patterns—or holograms—within the disk. Those holograms are then read by lasers, which are similar to the ones in Blu-ray players.

The technology is still two or three years from mainstream availability, but Lawrence believes the optimization of this capacity opens the door to a slew of possibilities.

“Think about all the information we encounter everyday. As our digital needs grow, so will our need for digital storage,” Lawrence said. “This breakthrough puts us significantly closer to meeting that need.”

In CDs, DVDs or BDs, the recording is done by making marks (or changes) in a thin recording layer in the disk, Lawrence said.

“These marks are typically made by changing the reflectivity of the recording layer; think of it as making microscopic damage spots in a mirror. In the case of holographic storage, we are creating chemical changes in microscopic patterns that will generate higher reflectivity when read by a low power laser,” Lawrence said.

“This is a more complicated process and requires that we create a material in which the refractive index can be changed when exposed to high laser power,” Lawrence said.

Does this holographic disk storage breakthrough have the potential to be a game-changing one in any of the markets?

“Game changing? While everyone likes to say change is constant, it’s also true that one constant is inertia,” Enterprise Strategy Group storage analyst Mark Peters told eWEEK.

“Nothing changes overnight. IT has a lot invested [both hardware and knowledge] in the traditional way of doing things. However, this does sound interesting.”

Although the talk about the new high-capacity disks is about potential capacities and price points, it doesn’t talk about that other key aspect—performance, Peters said.

“However—and making a lot of assumptions around reliability, longevity, interoperability, etc.—where a large, cheap serial/random access device could have a role is as a competitor to large HDDs [hard disk drives],” Peters said.

“This could be heightened as SSDs [solid-state drives] gradually take the I/O load and leave the capacity load to disks. Frankly, whether the less active, persistent data is on a traditional HDD, a new microholographic platter or my dinner plate doesn’t matter, as long as it fulfills the basic requirements at the best price.”

Specific markets for the high-capacity disks will be determined by their actual and eventual attributes, Peters said. However, the portability of such media makes for a wide range of options beyond traditional data center environments, he added.

“I guess I’m not going to change my expectations just yet. There’s also, for example, a long way to go with solid-state storage—and not just as SSDs,” Peters said.

“Remember that it’s only a few years ago that any of us were thrilled to get a USB storage stick as a ‘freebie,’ and now we’re drowning under them. Solid state—and even spinning technologies, such as vertical recording—has the potential to grow exponentially, too, in the time it will take for this holographic technology to become commercially viable.

“Bottom line? Interesting.”

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