The potential capacity of holographic storage makes it appealing, says Army Corps of Engineers’ Mark Kash, who wants to rid his organization of its tape archives.
Feb 15 2008

3-D Data Trove

Holographic storage: the next great archival medium?

Most government agencies involved in the archiving and preservation of large digital assets know a thing or two about data storage technology. But they may not know much yet about one emerging contender in the field: holographic storage.

The first commercial products are slated for release in mid-2008. With first-generation products boasting write-once, read-many (WORM) characteristics, a lifespan of 50-plus years, initial disk capacities of 300 gigabytes per disk and a 20 megabyte-per-second data rate, proponents are aiming this technology clearly at the long-term archival needs of government entities, highly regulated health-care and medical organizations, and professional media and film industries.

With their ever-growing data stores and their requirement to maintain many records in perpetuity, agencies would seem ideal users. But how will this new technology work, when will it be available and at what cost, and what are the hurdles to implementing it? Here’s the quick-take response to each of these questions for would-be early adopters.

How It Works

As opposed to traditional 2-D disks that write data only on the surface of the media, holographic storage supports writing data volumetrically, or three-dimensionally, throughout the whole depth of a disk.

The technology turns data bits typically composed of zeros and ones into a unique dark/light “checkerboard” interference pattern. A spatial light modulator and the intersection of two laser beams (a signal beam containing the data and a reference beam) help create the interference pattern, which records as a hologram image onto a plastic photo-polymer disk.

At an initial price of 60 cents per gigabyte, which should drop as the technology and market evolves to include capacities of more than 1 terabyte per disk, don’t be surprised to see most storage vendors include holographic storage in everything from virtual libraries to storage arrays.

The anticipated terabyte-plus capacity already has Mark Kash thinking of its future application. Kash is an IT specialist who oversees data storage and backup infrastructures for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District in West Virginia. No stranger to adopting new storage technologies, his district has received storage industry awards for its early adoption of technology.

“I’d love to get away from tapes,” says Kash. “They have always been a problem as far as reliability of the media goes and its durability in different weather conditions. I’d envisioned going to a 100 percent disk-based [backup] system, but after seeing its potential, I’d definitely consider holographic storage. If it’s as good as they say and as fast, I envision it going inside servers, possibly even replacing hard drives.” The potential green factor also intrigues Kash: Early estimates suggest a 90 percent energy savings over traditional spinning disks.

Storage needs worldwide will create an immediate demand for holographic drives, according to IDC research, which predicts sales reaching $180 million in 2011.

Market Potential, Potential Hurdles

The push to market will begin with InPhase Technologies, a Lucent Technologies spin-off in Longmont, Colo. Customers can expect to see holographic drives initially available for about $18,000, with holographic disks available for $180 each, says Liz Murphy, vice president of marketing at InPhase.

Murphy expects 80 percent of InPhase’s ultimate sales of holographic drives and media to come from storage and media vendors that will brand the technology under their own labels. This will undoubtedly include many of the companies that InPhase is currently working with, including Maxell Corporation of America, Imation and others.

Engineers from Hitachi Maxell have worked with the company to develop and manufacture the media for InPhase’s holographic storage solution, says Rich D’Ambrise, director of technology at Maxell. He sees holographic storage as a promising vehicle for organizations with long-term archival needs, especially for those needing to comply with federal guidelines.

Path to Adoption

Perfecting the materials and technology may require more industry muscle before the market sees multiple competing vendors, says David Waldman, chief scientist at DCE Aprilis, a Dow Corning subsidiary.

DCE Aprilis is a developer of holographic storage technologies and materials, which received early funding from government and university consortia, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency through the Holographic Data Storage System program.

The capacity of one first-generation holographic storage disk is equivalent to:

• 462 CDs

• 64 DVDs

• 26 hours of video recorded at 25 megabits per second

• Several million pages of text

SOURCE: InPhase Technologies

The government, with its vast records stockpiles, has been a proponent of the research. In addition to DARPA, the National Technology Alliance managed by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and the Advanced Technology Program run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology have awarded grants for holographic research.

“Incumbent [optical] technologies are already entrenched. For a new technology to really make its play, you have to compete in performance and cost. That will require big consumer electronics companies to shoulder the significant development costs to make a [holographic] drive,” says Waldman. He sees true competition coming to market in 2011 or 2012, based on the discussions he’s had with electronics companies.

For now, organizations with heavy data storage needs should watch these developments and consider adopting early holographic technology as a “prototype test bed” to see how it works. This advice comes from Dr. Victor McCrary, who convenes regular meetings with industry and government technology officials for the Government Information Preservation Working Group within NIST’s Digital Media Group. McCrary is also a business area executive for science and technology at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

McCrary sees the future of holographic storage as especially important for agencies that handle imaging data, such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Archives and Records Administration. “I think it has very good potential. Digital preservation is an issue that will only get larger in importance and concern, particularly for any sort of agency — government or commercial — concerned about retention of important records.”


Photo: Rick Lee